The Solutionists, with Mark Scott

Episode 2 transcript and episode notes

Episode 2: Superstar teacher Eddie Woo on unlocking a love of learning (at any age)

Eddie Woo's ability to connect people with maths, and make it fun and engaging, has made him a household name. The Australian high school teacher is known to millions of students worldwide as Mister WooTube thanks to his online classes – and he is now teaching the next generation of teachers at the University of Sydney.

Eddie is the teacher you wish you had – and he’s here with a lesson on embracing learning at any age. He also gets personal, reflecting on his own life, how the death of his mother shaped his view of growth mindset, and how he came to realise teaching isn’t about knowing all the answers.

If you think you don’t like maths, prepare to be surprised.

Mark Scott 00:01

This podcast is recorded at the University of Sydney's Camperdown campus on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. They've been discovering and sharing knowledge here for 10s of 1000s of years. I pay my respects to Elder's past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Eddie Woo 00:27

Yellowstone is this incredible wilderness area in the US, it sits on top of a dormant volcano. It's home to more geysers and hot springs than any other place on earth, and wolves roamed that landscape for 1000s of years. But in the 1920s, they were all but eradicated and the entire ecosystem fell apart. Coyotes ran rampant, the elk population exploded. It affected the trees, the birds, the beavers, the rivers - the ripple effect was huge. But in 1995, wolves were re-introduced, and it resulted in this cascade for the entire ecosystem - it saved the park. It turns out that wolves are an integral part of this complex ecological web of interrelationships. They help everything else thrive in ways that aren't clear, that on the surface, in fact, are quite counterintuitive. And the Yellowstone Wolf Project, it makes me think of education in society. I think teachers are a little bit like the wolves at Yellowstone National Park - that they're a keystone of society. And the impacts of teachers reach far and wide - the ripple effect they have is something we can't afford to underestimate.

Mark Scott 01:54

Generation Z can expect to have as many as 17 different jobs, over five careers in roles that may not even exist yet. So how do we prepare them for a life of learning? How can we teach better? And as we get older, and busier, how do we keep our own love of learning alive? I'm Mark Scott, the Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Sydney, and this is The Solutionists. Well, with me today is the man who makes maths fun - teacher extraordinaire, Eddie Woo. He’s known to students around the world as @misterwootube. He's also a Professor of Practice at the University of Sydney School of Education, where he teaches the next generation of teachers. Eddie, it's great to see you.

Eddie Woo 02:37

Mark, likewise.

Mark Scott 02:40

Eddie, how do we instill a love of learning in kids?

Eddie Woo 02:43

I mean, the first thing, obviously, in some ways, is for the teacher themselves - and that's the lens that I bring to this - to want to be so engaged with that learning themselves that they are modeling for a student what it looks like to be a learner in that space. The teacher in any context - and this is if you're someone like me at the front of a classroom, or if you're a parent with a child, or even any person who you get to interact with and help them learn - you're the lead learner in that relationship. And that relationship word is key. Not only can I model for you what it's like to be interested and engaged with this to help you be interested and engaged, but it's also about saying, I care about you as a person, I care about you enough to know what makes you tick, and to know what your very unique brain needs to connect you - I’m picturing sort of two cogs coming together and needing to get their teeth into each other. For the human being who's the learner to engage truly with the ideas or the skills I want to learn with, I need to know a lot about that person. So I guess there's two things there for you to begin - being able to model that excitement and engagement myself, and also to have such a deep knowledge of the learner themselves that I can know which part of this idea, whether it's calculus and trigonometry, or things outside the realm of mathematics that aren’t my area of expertise, to be able to help them connect to the young person.

Mark Scott 04:18

And is there also a mindset that, you know, if you can teach anything, that someone can learn anything? You know you're a maths teacher, there are plenty of people who've told themselves all their lives that they're not a math person, they don't get maths - are there people who are maths people and not maths people?

Eddie Woo 04:34

I would have to say that autobiographically I am the living contradiction to the idea that there is such a thing as a maths person, and then there's the rest of us mere mortals - because growing up, I never really fully grasped what maths was about. I could go through the procedures, which is what a lot of people I think would remember back in their school days. I might have learned a formula - here's the steps that you do, out pops the long division answer. Don't ask me why any of these steps mean what they mean, but I can do them and I can do them correctly. That was who I was when I was at school. And so to have come from there to now where people are shocked when I meet them, and I say, I've struggled with maths all my life - in fact, I kind of still do - I think that's one of the secrets to how I can teach effectively, because I still have empathy with the people I'm trying to help learn. No one likes to feel stupid. No one likes being placed under that pressure of goodness me, I don't know the answer to this, I must be an idiot, I can't learn this stuff. And so the first thing to do is to acknowledge there's some pain and difficulty and struggle underneath that, that I want to empathise with. And say, I get it, the feeling that you have that maths is not for you. I understand it. I don't want to dismiss it. But, or rather, and, there is a way to connect maths to you - you just don't know it yet. And I remember once a conversation I had, right before I gave a TED Talk. And I was the first talk, and myself and a musician - her name was Odette and she is a pianist, and a singer, very, very gifted - she was the first performer. And so we were standing backstage waiting for the call. It was one of those hurry up and wait type situations where call time was an hour before we were actually due to get on stage. And so we had the opportunity to actually have a real conversation. And she said to me, oh, so what do you do? And I said, well, I'm a math teacher. And frankly, that's usually the end of the conversation in most cases. But because we had three quarters of an hour at this point to wait, I just sort of explained, you know, this is what I do. And she said to me, I could never do maths, I just hate the subject. I said to her, tell me, tell me what it means to you to be a musician. What does composing look like to you what, what makes a great song? And she started to explain to me about the meaning of rhythms and melodies and harmonies and how they all fit together in a beautiful symmetry and the structure of a song. And I said to her, that is all mathematics. Mathematics is like music to the mind, in a way that music is like mathematics to the soul. And so being able to say okay for you, your world is music - I know enough about mathematics to connect my world to yours. I think every teacher of any subject, but particularly mathematics, has a responsibility and a privilege of being able to say you don't know how this is connected to you - but let me show you.

Mark Scott 07:54

Eddie, we've often thought that you know, teachers hold all the knowledge and all the wisdom, they have all the answers. Is that how you see good teachers operating?

Eddie Woo 08:04

Mark, I think this is what I used to imagine that a model teacher looked like. I remember early in my teaching career, one of my mentors was a teacher named Bob. And I hope he's listening out there because this is a story which I hope warms his heart. Bob was the kind of teacher who I would seek out when I was preparing a lesson. And I just could not understand what I was doing wrong with a particular problem. I was just getting the wrong answer over and over again. Sometimes I would get 10 different answers. They'd all be wrong. And at wit's end, I would say, Bob, please help me, and I would show him a question. And within seconds - he would not hesitate - he would instantly reply, ‘oh, I recognize this question. This is in the 1995 HSC. It was question seven, I believe, a real corker, kids had trouble with this one.’ I was just flummoxed by his ability to, in an encyclopedic way, know every question that seemed to have ever been written by human beings about every topic. And he could do this - it wasn't just a one off - every time I came to Bob, he would know the answers. And I just thought to myself, wow, if only I could be a teacher like Bob. And after maybe four or five years, I'd gotten along to a point where students were asking me questions, and I really truly knew the answers. And I came to a point where I realised, okay, I have fit that portrait of what I thought a great teacher was, but actually, I don't think I'm helping my students learn necessarily - I think I'm getting in their way, because what I was doing was being so preoccupied with how clever I was, and how well I knew the answer, that actually my attention had been completely shifted away from the student to myself - and that is a critical error for a teacher to make. I realise that a great teacher isn't so much someone who knows all the answers, but is someone who knows how to ask the right questions. Picture for me, a river delta, as the water weaves its way through the landscape, and splits into little tributaries all the way to the sea. Then picture a set of tree branches on a mighty oak tree that's 300 years old. Think about how they spread out into the sky. Now, look at the back of your hand - perhaps you can see just beneath your skin, the pattern of veins carrying blood to every cell in your body. And now lastly, picture a storm and you're safe inside, and the rain is falling down. And you see in the distance a lightning strike, and it's only there for a split second. But you know that shape anywhere. And you realise that river, those branches, the veins in your hand, that lightning strike - they're all the same shape, mathematically speaking. A lot of people struggle to see how mathematics can have anything to do with our everyday life. What are all these symbols and formulas? We are made of mathematics, and we're made of mathematics that binds and unifies us to the entire universe.

Mark Scott 12:02

One of the things we know is, you know, the nature of work is going to be changing. Technology is going to change the shape of jobs. How do you help young people today plan for a career that can take so many different forms and is still - it could well be totally unknown?

Eddie Woo 12:17

One of my favorite things about mathematics is problem solving. The best definition I think there is for what problem solving means is, it's what you do when you don't know what to do. And there is a set of systematic approaches that anyone can take when they're trying to make sense of a situation that is novel and confusing to them to start to unpack - maybe if we break down the situation into its component parts, maybe if we were to try and draw it out systematically, or perhaps if we could think of a simpler version of this and come up with a principle that helps us understand that situation - then we can broaden it. These are the kinds of things which I think are fantastic tools for equipping students to walk into a world that they can't predict, and I can't predict. But when they get to a place where they don't know what to do, they will still have something to do.

Mark Scott 13:09

And what have you learned about the way we best absorb new information?

Eddie Woo 13:14

We know, for instance, that when we listen to something, we absorb some of it, and when we see we absorb - but actually one of the most profound ways to really form understanding is then to in fact, do the thing that we're doing right now, and is to speak and to talk with each other. Ebbinghaus’ curve of forgetting, which is sort of a reverse exponential curve, it starts real high. You know, I remember everything for the next two, three minutes, and then it drops off rapidly as you hit half an hour and then a day, and then a week and then a month. That curve of forgetting can be disrupted by us engaging in deep and purposeful conversation around here's what I'm learning, let me try and explain to you what I think this means and how it coheres with my understanding, does that make sense to you? And I think it was the physicist Richard Feynman who said, ‘you do not understand something truly, until you can explain it simply’. And what I love about that is it captures the fact that communication is not just a mechanism for conveying thought, communication is a mechanism for constructing thought. It's part of the reason why I still love to hand write my notes for everything, because I'm convinced something different is happening in my brain when I pick up a pen, and I can maintain a line of focus for five, 10, 15, 20 minutes. That definitely will not happen if I'm just -

Mark Scott 14:43

On the keyboard.

Eddie Woo 14:45

On the keyboard. Yeah.

Mark Scott 14:46

What about growth mindset and an attitude towards learning and a confidence that you can come to mastery of the new?

Eddie Woo 14:56

Growth mindset - you can see why this idea is inherently attractive to an educator. Because if we're not coming into this business to help people change and grow, then what are we even here for? But at the same time, there are tough realities in how particularly young people don't just come to learning ready to learn. There are plenty of obstacles to them and challenges to their different baselines that it certainly can look as though there are some people and they're the ones who are going to do Mathematics Extension 2 and get a band E4. And then there's everyone else who just don't even bother trying. And let's just use that as an example - Mathematics Extension 2 is the most advanced level of mathematics you can study in a New South Wales High School. And it's, it's tough. It's so tough. But I myself when I was at school, I looked at it and I thought, you know what, I don't think I can do this –

Mark Scott 15:53

I didn’t even think about it.

Eddie Woo 15:55

There you go. And that makes you normal, Mark. That makes you normal. I've had the opportunity to counsel 100s and 1000s of students who are at the cusp of making that decision - should I take on Extension 2 or not - and I'll sit down with that student or have a look at their academic transcript up to that point, I'll have a look at the work that they've done, what the rest of their pattern of study might look like in year 12. And I might say to someone, you know what, you're capable of this, you are. However, over the next 12 months, with the goals that you have, the things you want to juggle - perhaps this is someone who wants to complete their, you know, gold certificate for Duke of Edinburgh, or they are busy working, or they're a part time carer for a loved one at home - I would say you know what, this is not for you at this exact moment in time, but don't give up. And then I'll tell them the story of how I myself didn't do Extension 2 in year 12, and then I went and did a mathematics degree at university and rather invalidated all of that. There is always an opportunity for me - it was when I entered university, my mother passed away in the middle of my first year of tertiary studies. And that was obviously painful and difficult, but at the same time - and I find this really difficult to explain, actually, to people because grief is such a strange thing - there was a sense of relief, not just to know my mum was no longer battling lung cancer as she had for three years in a very traumatic way, but that as a family, we could kind of exhale and say, alright, we're never going to leave our mum behind and our love for her. But we can move forward. And what that's going to look like for me is engaging very deeply, throwing myself into a new kind of learning that for the last three years as a part time career myself, I hadn't been able to do. So that's what growth mindset looks like to me. It's not, I don't think, a Disney like anyone can be anything they like if they just believe hard enough. I think reality is a bit sharper, and more rigorous than that. But at the same time, it's not falling off on the other side of the horse and saying there are just some people who just can't, I think that's a mistake. And I love that my whole job is to show that actually that there's a much brighter future than that. Think about a great tennis player, they've probably got a powerful serve, a killer backhand, they’re fast on the court. But I bet what makes them really successful is how well they can read their opponent. They can adapt their approach depending on who they're playing, and make decisions on the fly based on that adaptability. I remember watching Nick Kyrgios play once and he was struggling, you could see him getting really frustrated. He was saying to his coach, I've tried everything - he couldn't cut through because his opponent knew how to anticipate what he'd do. He knew Nick’s strengths and weaknesses. He knew the moves Nick would make. And teaching is like that, you have the skills, you know the content, but you have to know your students. You work out what they're amazing at what makes them tick, where they might struggle. And then you base your approach on that.

Mark Scott 19:26

All around the world there are chronic teacher shortages. There is no silver bullet to that. But what's the pitch to someone who wants to become a teacher? What are the rewards of teaching? You know, sell the profession.

Eddie Woo 19:37

I'm smiling because I'm thinking back to my first year of work, which was - I mean, the first year of full-time work for anyone, regardless profession, is a tough one, because you're on such a steep learning curve. And I remember my first month actually, I was catching up with a friend who turned to me and he said, hey, you've been working for about a month now, how are things going? And I said, I'm exhausted. I am cognitively taxed beyond what I even thought was possible. But I'm, I'm loving it. He looked back to me, he said, I give you about three more weeks. And I'm thinking of Daniel Pink, and his work on motivation. He talks about autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy - you've got to have some sense of control and self-direction that you can make choices that are genuine in how you do what you do. And I love that as a teacher, I get handed a syllabus, but I can craft experiences for students that are as broad as my imagination can come up with. Mastery - there has to be some progression and learning for myself that I'm getting better at this. I look back at myself five years ago, or terrifyingly, I look literally back at myself from 10 years ago, when I started videoing my own classroom lessons for the first time…

Okay. Now, this does not answer the question for us, this is a very vague sort of definition. But hopefully it will, if there's a…

There's a thing for anyone who's out there and would like a real kill to their self-esteem, record yourself doing your daily work for 10 years, and then look back at what you used to be like and think, wow, I can't believe I ever did it like that. But I can see the change, I can see the development of mastery. And then lastly, purpose - there has to be a reason that motivates you to get up in the morning and push through the difficult times and say, this is making a difference for people, whether it's abstractly if your work is very distant from people you get to interact with, or if it's the students in front of me in the classroom. There's got to be a why that pushes me forward. So those three things, those are my pitch, and I discover - contrary to my friend who gave me three weeks - I discover more and more reasons to align me and to give me rich purpose and motivation every day that I continue.

Mark Scott 21:54

Do you think parents should be confident that our school curriculums are up to the task of teaching the transferable skills and the critical mindsets that children are going to need when they graduate into this rapid, fast-changing world?

Eddie Woo 22:13

A simple answer to that question, even though there isn't a simple answer to this question is yes, they are. I do remember the first time that an academic, in a moment of great trust, she said, Eddie, you need to understand curriculum syllabus documents - they are not documents that have been crafted to provide students with the best learning experience. They are objects that have been created through a political process to satisfy the stakeholders at play. And what you have in your hands as a teacher is almost a Frankenstein-esque composition of different ideas, some of which are truly clashing with each other, that you should not have rose-colored glasses on when you read. And I was rattled by that statement, because as a much younger, more idealistic teacher, I thought, well, if that's the case, what hope do we have? Can I with my hand on my heart say that I can use this to provide students with what they need moving forward? And I came to realise the answer is yes, they are a launching-off point for the teacher and for the student themselves, to be able to say, here are the foundational concepts, the places that - if you're imagining giving a tour of Europe, you would say, look down this alleyway. There's 1000 years of history in this pavement. Now look up, cast your eyes to that cathedral in the distance. We're not going to get there today, but let me tell you what you should look out for when you start heading in that direction. And then there are mountains beyond that, which you will only be able to experience if you understand where you are situated and how to get there and how they're all related to each other. There is plenty of wonderful material, certainly in the syllabus that I have the privilege of teaching, that does give me great hope, in fact, more than hope, confidence that when used well, equip students for whatever future is coming for them.

Mark Scott 24:24

What advice would you give to parents who want to equip their children to be lifelong learners?

Eddie Woo 24:28

Most of what I've been able to give my children that has been of most value to them, they've not come from any of my training as a teacher - they've come from my priority on empathy to my fellow human being, because I think that the most valuable thing that we as parents can give to our children is to come alongside them and to say, hey, what is that? Tell me about that. Explain to me this poem that you're reading. With some embarrassment, despite the fact that I love English and I studied it to the highest level possible in New South Wales high schools, I never really wrapped my head around poetry when I was at school, and I regretted that. I went through many years of my life thinking, well, that's just a door that's closed forever. And my daughter came home with a poem from Yates, and she said, we're learning this, and it's amazing. And in that moment, I had a choice. I could say, okay, and then move on with 100 different things that I had to do that day and not pay any further attention. Number two, I could say, poetry, I hated poetry - good luck with that. But number three, what I chose to do, and what I know she found valuable, was to sit beside my daughter. And that time, signaled to her more than any pedagogical technique or strategy I ever learned at university or came to learn while I was an in-service teacher - more than any of those, it reaffirmed to her the value in the dignity of what she was doing, and therefore it was worth her precious time and effort.

Mark Scott 26:18

And for everyone else, what can we all do to embrace lifelong learning more fully?

Eddie Woo 26:24

I think having an attitude of knowing that you will learn something from everything - it might be by counterexample - but you will truly learn something from every different life experience that you're ever going to encounter. And in some ways, you're going to learn the most when you expect it the least. And my favorite example of this is that I'm a bit of an audio junkie. I'm not just saying that because we're on a podcast right now, but I am someone who listens to an eclectic mix of different podcasts. And one of the things I love about that is that I love surprising myself with something that looks like it'll have no interest to me, no connection to what it is that I have to do, that I want to become better at. But I'll suspend judgment long enough to hit download to listen in. And without exception, I find ideas that crossover with my world in ways that I never anticipated. This happens to me enough that I now know to expect if I think there's nothing to do with me in this, then I just need to give it a bit of time.

Mark Scott 27:38

I'm Mark Scott, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney and a huge thanks to Eddie Woo for his insights today. Eddie is Professor of Practice in the School of Education at the University of Sydney, a high school math teacher, and one of my all-time favorite YouTubers

Eddie Woo 27:53

modification multiplying I think the simplest way to understand it is it's repeated. That's all it is.

Mark Scott 28:00

Thanks, Eddie.

Eddie Woo 28:02

You're so welcome, Mark.

Mark Scott 28:05

Make sure you're following The Solutionists in your favorite podcast app, so you never miss a chance to meet the brightest minds, working to solve the most complex issues - the people who are making change happen. The Solutionists is a podcast from the University of Sydney, produced by Deadset Studios. Next time, our society is becoming increasingly polarised. So how do we build bridges between different sides and bring people together to create big lasting change?


When I saw how difficult the cave was, I realised that they would panic within minutes of being taken underwater if they were anything less than completely unconscious. I think the way I, you know, resolve this final moral dilemma in my mind that I might actually be euthanising these boys was that, well, they're going to die anyway.


What I saw in early days for me in politics was this ability of someone like Julia Gillard, as Prime Minister to have a deep interest in what motivates people and a willingness to actually get in the room and negotiate and I think that that's foundational to actually being able to bring people together a sense of what is it that defines them, what's distinctive, and how might you find common ground between them.

The Solutionists is a podcast from The University of Sydney, produced by Deadset Studios.

Keep up to date with The Solutionists by following @sydney_uni on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

This episode was produced by Monique Ross. Sound design by Jeremy Wilmot. Studio recording by Jacob Craig. The executive producer is Rachel Fountain. Executive editors are Jen Peterson-Ward, Kellie Riordan and Mark Scott.

This podcast was recorded on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. For thousands of years, across innumerable generations, knowledge has been taught, shared and exchanged here. We pay respect to Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.