Let’s Talk Teaching: Meet mathematician Shawn Desaulniers

Hear from Shawn Desaulniers on the importance of grit when learning mathematics.

Katie Willis - 13 November 2020

When it comes to studying mathematics at the university level, Shawn Desaulniers wants students to know that a strong work ethic makes all the difference. “Grit is more important than natural ability,” said Desaulniers, instructor in the Department of Mathematical and Statistical Sciences. “University-level mathematics is about asking questions, understanding a series of basic ideas, and a lot of mindful practice.”

Desaulniers teaches large, undergraduate courses on mathematics and calculus. During the year, he also works closely with theFaculty of Education’s Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP) to share the fun of learning with Indigenous elementary school students—including helping organize a math fair in Maskwacis in November 2019.

Hear more from Desaulniers on mathematics, teaching, and his advice for students learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What do you teach?

I teach courses in mathematics. The main focus is learning how to learn and how to communicate in the language of mathematics. Recently I've been working with teaching candidates and focusing on the importance of communicating effectively and understanding basic concepts deeply.

What do you love about your field?

There are so many things to love about math. For me personally, the thing that I love the most is that the truths we discover are eternal. The ideas are intellectual art. There are no grey areas and everything comes with a sound explanation. These truths are often reproved several times, even hundreds of years after they've been established in an effort to improve their aesthetics.

What should students who are interested in this topic know?

Grit is more important than natural ability. University-level mathematics is about asking questions, understanding a series of basic ideas, and a lot of mindful practice. You are now your own teacher, so it will be important for you to learn how you best learn. Also, these courses are rarely self-contained, so look for the math outside of the classroom as much as possible. It's everywhere.

Tell me about your passion for teaching. What inspires you?

Helping others is always fantastic, and helping others to help others is even better. Who doesn't like that? 

Teaching math is awesome because it empowers people to become independent learners. There are also a lot of life lessons that have analogies in the maths classroom. I get a lot of inspiration from going to church and watching live theatre as well. The combination of poor acting along with deep life lessons sums up a good math lecture.

How do you cultivate a community of practice with your fellow instructors?

It's important to share ideas and support each other. We attend one another's lectures and ask challenging pedagogical questions to each other. The math community in Canada is rather small, actually, and luckily it's filled with some pretty amazing people who are always willing to share resources. We're currently going through a national teaching reform that is driven by collaboration, which is pretty exciting to be part of.

Our world has been turned upside down during the COVID-19 pandemic. What advice would you give students on learning in a remote environment?

First, one of the greatest intellectual discoveries of all time, calculus, was discovered during the Great Plague! So learning mathematics during physical distancing could be a very liberating experience because you learn math by doing it, not by watching someone else do it. While it will be very difficult for some students, most students will transition to becoming independent thinkers much more quickly than they otherwise would. This will help them with all of their studies going forward.

What is one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?

I like to take things apart, even if I can't put them back together. Afterall, we learn best by making mistakes and reflecting on them. Some tools are pretty cool—they are useless for 99.999% of the tasks but having the right tool at the right time can be a deal-breaker. Some mathematical ideas are like this also. 

Curious to learn more? Find more information on teaching and learning in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Science