Elizaveta Semasheva ’22 interviewed Mr. James Shields, who has served as the High School Math Department Chair for more than 20 years and believes that students shouldn’t be overly reliant on technology as they build a solid foundation in mathematics.
Can you please describe your educational and professional background prior to your arrival at TASIS?
I studied math as an undergraduate and then completed a Master's Degree in Mathematics. I then continued to study mathematics quite a bit beyond that. Before I came to TASIS in 1997, I worked at Deerfield Academy—a private boarding school in the United States—for two years and spent 10 or 11 years as a lecturer for the University of Massachusetts Math Department.
How would you describe your approach to education?
I try to keep things very simple. I strive to make my explanations as complete and comprehensible as possible for the students. I try, to tell you the truth, to leave technology out of it. It may sound somewhat contradictory, as you may expect math people to be very tech-savvy. It's not that I'm not tech-savvy, but I don't want the tech to become a way for students to recognize and understand mathematics. It doesn't need to have anything to do with technology. Technology can be helpful, but I don't want students to get the impression that math can only be done with the assistance of technology. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are other disciplines, perhaps, that really require it. It can assist us in our department, but I don't want students to be left with the feeling that it's a tech thing and they can't do math without a device.
Why is STEM education so important in today's world?
Well, all the big changes in society seem to have some changes in technological capabilities at their roots. It might be that the change will continue along this way for some time. There are other places that society can change that don't have anything to do with tech—politics, for example. But there's so much that the world is capable of and the advances in tech seem to make possible further advances that we can apply in medicine, communication, and so on. These are the big advances in tech that have helped us do the things we're doing right here with this interview. So I expect that these subject areas—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—are going to be important for quite a while.
What do you like most about teaching at TASIS?
To start, I love the location. I like being in Europe, and I like being so close to Italy. As far as teaching goes, I like the independence that you get at an independent school in the way you conduct your classes and design your curriculum. There are some aspects of our curriculum that are not designed by us—for example, with the IB—but we still have a kind of independence in what we can do. Traveling with students is also something I've enjoyed here and participated in frequently. I really enjoy being able to do those kinds of extracurricular things at TASIS.
As a department chair, do you ever find it necessary to impose constraints on teachers that may limit their personal approach to teaching?
I don't think so, to tell you the truth. We have certain established curricula that have books associated with them and certain content that has to be covered. But the actual way in which a teacher teaches is not decided upon by us. In my role as department chair, I expect teachers to have an established method for teaching—something that they're comfortable with and that is effective. We've never made it our business here at TASIS to tell people how to teach in the classroom. We work with teachers to help them to improve their practice, but ultimately they still have a lot of latitude. I think that this is very important because, in the end, teaching and learning is not a process that you can make too mechanical.