Kean teaches math, viola and how to 'learn how to learn'
Eric Kean. Courtesy photo
It’s a rare professor who can teach such disparate subjects as those taught by Western Washington University’s Eric Kean.
Kean, a lecturer at Western since 2001, teaches mathematics and viola, both longtime passions of his.
“Back when I was a math graduate student, I remember thinking that my dream job would be to teach math and viola at a university,” Kean says with a wide smile. “It was just by sheer luck that after a year here (teaching mathematics) the viola position opened up, and here I am.”
And where is here, exactly?
As a teacher of mathematics, Kean is a wizard at using technology to improve his communication with students.
For starters, he has created a number of instructional videos in which he talks through common math problems and misconceptions. He set up a website for his Math 112 class at Western on which are 40-plus videos on topics such as equations, word problems, misconceptions and simplifying strategies.
The idea came to Kean one day when he realized that students were dropping by his office looking for help on problems whose solutions he’d already posted on Blackboard. But after a little one-on-one instruction, the students seemed to grasp the concepts much more firmly. A light bulb suddenly blazed. Now, Kean can send students to his video mini-lectures online to supplement the classroom learning experience.
More recently, he’s the proud parent of a new iPhone app that uses a flashcard system to teach basic pre-calculus concepts. The app features 500 flashcards, with over 100 graphs and close to 3 hours of audio.
Kean also just released a second app that teaches AP Statistics. The statistics app includes more than three hours of lecture audio, 250 flashcards and 500 multiple-choice questions. Its goal is to help high school students prepare for the advanced-placement statistics test.
And as if that weren’t enough, Kean also is working on an online algebra textbook that can be changed on the fly to suit users’ needs. The book will allow instructors to assign online homework, creating their own questions or using those submitted by other professors, eliminating the “cookie-cutter” approach that’s present in many textbooks, Kean says. Instructors also can customize the book by showing or hiding certain sections and by uploading supplemental learning material. The book will contain interactive web features that will help students absorb the material as well.
When not focused on teaching mathematics, Kean spends his time playing and teaching the viola. When he was younger, Kean played both the piano and violin. But one fateful day, a friend asked if Kean could learn the viola clef quickly enough to play a birthday party gig.
“I never looked back,” Kean says. “The viola speaks to me.”
But the viola didn’t speak loudly enough to convince Kean to consider it as a career. Kean was accepted into Cornell University, and he chose to study statistics because he thought about becoming an actuary.
“I really enjoyed statistics, because instead of having to know a lot, I had to think a lot,” Kean says. “That appealed to me.”
He did study the viola for a while at Cleveland Institute of Music, and then earned his master’s degree in mathematics from John Carroll University in nearby University Heights.
“Frankly, I did it because I both enjoyed mathematics and I needed more time to practice viola, which would have been tough with a 9-to-5 job,” he says.
Eventually, the job at Western opened up, and the rest is history.
But that doesn’t mean Kean has stopped trying to learn, whether at viola or at mathematics. If there’s anything that’s consistent about Kean, it’s that he’s always trying to improve at what he does.
It’s an attitude he’s constantly trying to pass off to his students, whether they be freshmen struggling to understand quadratic equations or seniors trying to learn a challenging viola piece.
“I talk to them a lot about how they study, how they practice,” Kean says. “When we give our students the tools to ‘learn how to learn,’ they’ll be able to be successful at whatever they do.”
Thoughtful repetition is key, he says. Play the piece, figure out what’s wrong, practice it again. Work on a problem, figure out why you can’t solve it, do it again.
“A lot of my math and viola students fall into the trap of repetition without thought, which only gives a false sense of understanding,” Kean says.
That’s why he practices his viola two or more hours every day. It’s why he has played with the Seattle Symphony and taught a viola master class in Malmo, Sweden. It’s why he creates mobile phone apps and online textbooks.
“I’m always happy with where I am,” Kean says, “but after a bit of self-reflection I always see where things can be better.”