An Interview with Frank Wang: About The Beauty of Mathematics

Sep 18, 2006 by

Editor’s Note: Jimmy Kilpatrick, and I (Delia) met Frank Wang in Houston, Texas, at the National Math Conference Spring 2006. As a major presenter at the conference, he had a large group of teachers interested in his work and he shared how he became a Math teacher and  LATER THE CEO of Saxon Publishers.

He had a warm and caring approach to his audience as if to say, “Your job is not easy, and I know first hand your everyday challenges”, because I too, am a teacher. He left HIS  CEO chair to join the ranks.”

What intrigued me most about Frank Wang was the fact that during his early years in school, he was tagged as a child with learning difficulties. However, when he memorized the whole Algebra test for 9th grade, and only missed one question when tested by the principal, immediately the teaching staff began to treat him differently, and their expectations of him were instantly increased! High expectations indeed!

At sixteen, he was working with John Saxon, and when John passed away, the “learning challenged student” took over the corporation. Does this speak volumes about “high expectations”! Here is Frank Wang today.  IN THIS INTERVIEW HE DISCUSSES HIS LOVE FOR MATH AND TEACHING AND REFLECTS ON HIS JOURNEY IN LIFE We hope this interview will inspire! DS

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico 88130

Delia Stafford
Haberman Foundation
Houston, Texas

 

1)      You have a new DVD out entitled “Beauty and Mathematics” What is that all about?

The Beauty and Math DVD is my way of answering the question “What do mathematicians do ?” for non-math people.  I contend that one of the higher purposes of mathematicians (their raison d’etre, if you will) is – finding order and structure in virtually every situation, no matter how random or disordered the situation may seem.

I do this with historical anecdotes, riddles, interactive demonstrations involving audience participation, and “dazzling” displays of mathemagics.  The culmination of my talk is what I call a “death-defying” feat!

2)      I understand you were recently quoted in a feature piece on MSNBC on the issue of “Can America Compete”? Why are we having difficulty competing with other nations and countries?

I blame our country’s ability to compete on textbooks and the way the textbooks are developed, evaluated, and purchased in this country.

Everyone will agree that education is an important, if not most important key, to a country’s success or failure to compete with other countries.  However, in the discussion about education, textbooks are overlooked.  I find this curious since studies have shown that what is actually taught in a classroom depends heavily on the textbooks, with studies estimating that up to 90 % of the instruction is driven by the textbook.

However, we have a system of textbook selection (called textbook adoption in the industry) that does not consider whether textbooks work or not or produce any sort of positive results in the classroom.  I was once in the audience at a Curriculum Commission meeting in California listening to the public testimony of teachers talking about how their test scores improved after using particular textbooks.  The chair of the committee had to interject that the committee members were to ignore this testimony because in her words “although we as consumers consider effectiveness in our buying decisions, it is not part of the textbook evaluation process.”  What we are really saying here is that results do not matter.  No wonder our children and country can’t compete.

3)      I (MS) had a tough time with algebra, but was able to go on and take Multivariate Analysis of Variance. Were my problems with algebra with my under-developed brain, the teacher, the type of instruction or all of the above?

I certainly would not blame your intellectual capacity for whatever academic difficulties you had.  I was diagnosed with having “neurological impairment based upon delayed milestones and minimal suggestive neurological signs.”  (You can see the doctor’s report in the About Me section of my website www.wangeducation.com.)  The school I attended wanted me removed because they felt that trying to educate me would be a waste of time and resources.  A big fight at the school board level ensued but my parents prevailed.  I stayed in school and for some time, I pretty much fulfilled the prophecy of the so-called experts.  Finally, I resolved to prove to the world that I was smart and that I did have academic potential.  I certainly was not smart but I engineered a secret plan that culminated with my getting a PhD in pure math from MIT.  (The story is described in the About Me section of my website www.wangeducation.com ).

Because of this experience, I have made it my life’s mission to prove that it is possible to teach higher math and very advanced concepts to students of all ages and abilities.

Even the most mathematically disinclined and poorly prepared student can succeed in learning advanced math concepts if these concepts are presented in the right way.

4)      What do you think about textbooks in general?

Because of the way  K-12 textbooks are evaluated and purchased in this country, they are generally written by teams of faceless people.  A number of states have state textbook adoption processes and these processes demand from the textbook publishers textbooks that meet certain criteria.  Publishers spend most of their time and energy doing the “backflips” necessary to get their books adopted rather than spending the money on doing the research and development necessary to create books that really work and produce results in the classroom.  [For example, the influence of Texas is so great in the textbook market that American history books will spend more time covering the battle of the Alamo than the revolutionary war.]

5)      What has been your involvement with Saxon math textbooks?

I first met the founder of Saxon Publishers as a 16 year old high school student.  I was taking calculus at the University of Oklahoma as a high school junior and one class someone stuck their head in the door and said that a retired military man was looking for some student help.  I called Mr. Saxon that night and so began a working relationship that lasted through the most formative years of my life.

When I was  a few months shy of getting my PhD in pure math from MIT, John Saxon approached me and asked if I would be interested in running his company.  At first I demurred saying that I did not know how to run a company, not having even run a lemonade stand.  Saxon brushed aside my concerns and exhorted me to simply “Fake it.  Act like you know what you are doing and you will do just fine.”  I took Saxon’s advice and the company grew from under two dozen employees to nearly 250 during my tenure.

6)      You recently said  “Never before have I tried to cover so much, in so little time with students so young”   I  (MS) recently paraphrased Winston Churchill and said “ Never in the course of human events, have so many teachers, been asked to do so much , with so many different diverse students, with so few resources and so little support” In general, are teachers simply being asked to do too much ?

My favorite quote of my mentor John Saxon was “Creativity springs unsolicited from a well-prepared mind.”  I believe that if we focus on developing a well-prepared mind – by focusing on a mastery of the basic skills and concepts then everything else will follow.

If you look at the sports world, you will find that those teams that win consistitenly are ones that practice a lot and executive flawlessly the fundamental skills.  If we focus on the fundamentals, then success will follow.

It’s when we try to do all that “high-falutin” stuff that we lose our way.

7)      There is a t.v. show called “Numbers” which I ( MS) watch on Friday nights. Have you ever seen it and do mathematicians really work like that?

I must confess that I never saw the show “Numbers”.  Even though I haven’t seen it, I could probably safely say that mathematicians don’t generally life a life as sexy and glamourous as portrayed on the show.  However, the intellectual fulfillment and excitement is unmatched.

8)      What is your view about calculators?

I wrote a piece about the use of calculators by elementary school students in a point/counterpoint treatment of this question in a newletter publihsed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.  Basically what I said was that students should first master skills by hand before using a calculator.

I actually was proabably one of the first elementary school students who got to use a calculator.  My father bought one the first pocket caclulators (an HP 35 and later an HP 45) for $ 350 when his salary as an assistant professor of civil engineering was just $ 15,000 per year.

9)      How do we get a “ I LOVE NERDS” pocket protector and what is that all about?

Some years ago, I got a pocket protector that said “MIT Nerd Pride” as a gag gift.  It got all worn out and so I called the MIT bookstore to buy a replacement pocket protector.  They told me they no longer sold pocket protectors.  I was disturbed by this as I thought if the MIT bookstore doesn’t sell pocket protectors, who will ?  I then decided to manufacture my own.  You can buy them for $ 3.95 apeice (there are also volume discounts of the pocket protectors) or get one free by being one of the first 100 people to sign up in the Forums section of my website www.wangeducation.com.

10)  What question have we neglected to ask?

Well, I was hoping for a question on my recent venture.

I recently started an educational entrepreneurial venture called Wang Education.  The mission of the company is to provide teaching resources for teachers and to provide math enrichment for students that will make accessible and understandable concepts of higher math of all ages and abilities.

This past May, I visited an elementary school in inner city Chicago and taught abstract algebra, normally a subject taken by math majors in their junior or senior year in college, to typical fourth and fifth graders.  These students came from all over the world, and some were just learning to speak English.  However, because I used fruits (such as cantaloupe, apple, banana, etc.) I was able to help even the most mathematically disinclined student to learn more deeply about the math they are presently learning in school.

Right now, I am working on a product called “In Search of Calculus.”  The title is a tribute to Christopher Columbus.  Columbus sought a shortcut to Asia but stumbled on the New World.  My goal is to teach fourth and fifth grade students calculus.  As we seek a shortcut to calculus, we will learn about other mathematical concepts.

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