Meet Commonwealth Faculty: David Gold, Math and Computer Science Teacher

Don’t be fooled: David Gold’s Commonwealth classes may appear to be solidly STEM, but he approaches them with a liberal-arts lens. His Statistics class upends the traditional structure of the curriculum. His Calculus class uses a mastery-based approach inspired by his favorite college courses. And his computer programming class—not to be confused with computer science—feels almost like an art studio. Keep reading to learn more about his interdisciplinary approach, plus what he finds a “wee bit silly” about most statistics classes, how he defines “space operas,” and “what the best mathematicians do.”

Getting to Know You

What is bringing you joy right now? 

My girlfriend and I are playing a lot (more than I care to admit) of Stardew Valley, an adorable video game where you have a farm and plant crops and tend to animals. It’s nice and relaxing after a long day!

What is your favorite book (or a book you’ve re-read)? 

Right now, it’s Children of Time [by Adrian Tchaikovsky]. I've always been a huge sci-fi/fantasy nerd, but I've been on a space-opera kick recently, trying to understand what makes them tick. For me, space operas need to feel grand in scale and have this divergence and convergence (sorry to be mathematical!), where you have interweaving storylines, cultures clashing and colliding. To me, Children of Time stands out as wildly within the genre while also wildly outside of it. Just very beautiful, very interesting stuff, especially for someone who loves computer science and virtual thought experiments. It also made me dislike spiders a little bit less, which is a big plus.

What are your favorite comfort foods? 

I am a big Twizzlers guy. 

What was your favorite class in high school? 

A horror-based English class. We read The Exorcist, Dracula, and House of Leaves, which is a very strange, wild, shifting piece of literature I had always wanted to get through. (I was knee deep in a Stephen King obsession at this point, too, going through every single one of his books to find the themes and the connections. It was a conspiracy ball of nonsense but really fun.) This seminar was my first view into literary criticism and analysis beyond a five-paragraph essay. It was freeing, learning to write in a completely new way—and if I had not taken this class, I think I would hate writing about math! It sounds strange, but the class really opened my eyes to writing about weird stuff in weird ways and having a lot of fun with it. And writing about math can be really weird!

Describe Commonwealth students in three words or less.

“Forgiving” is definitely one. During your first few weeks [teaching], you don't have the schedule down pat, you mess up the numbers sometimes, but they're very willing to see past those tiny imperfections. 

“Willing”: willing to try out new things, willing to experiment—and be the subject of experiments when it comes to grading, which I'm very grateful for! 

The easy one is “curious.” They're just very, very curious.

Life as a Commonwealth Teacher (and Beyond)

What led you to teaching and to Commonwealth in particular? 

So I was having a mid-college crisis: I knew I wanted to do math and computer science and I wanted to help people—but the kind of math and computer science I was doing felt like the exact opposite. So I took a very deep dive into political science and where it intersects with math, CS, and linguistics. I ended up teaching at a summer program for high school kids from around the world through Yale called Young Global Scholars. It was all online—I started there during COVID. I was in the politics, law, and economics department. In my seminars, I talked about gerrymandering, the economics of art theft, voting systems, linguistic policy, monopolies, and big tech. They let me run with ideas I'd been toying with and wanting to talk about with the next generation. The kids were very enthusiastic, very curious, very willing to listen, and also very willing to push back. It was a really fun experience. 

With Commonwealth, I was looking for a job and a recruitment agency connected me with Mara [Dale, English teacher and Commonwealth’s Dean of Faculty Hiring and Support]. I had such a great Zoom interview with Mara and Theo [Paul, math teacher]. They were just so fun to talk to and so excited, bouncing ideas off of each other. It was such a thrill. Then they asked me to come in and teach a demo lesson, and a few days later, I got the call from Jennifer [Borman, Head of School]. I am very happy—and it's a strange coincidence, because my grandpa lived in an apartment about two blocks away from here when I was little. I was like, why does this neighborhood look familiar?! A bunch of weird pieces fell together that very luckily landed me this incredible job.

What courses do you teach, and what do they entail?

With Calculus, the content is comparable to a college-level course, but I use a mastery-based grading system: You take a short quiz on two or three separate topics every week, and if you get a low score, you can retake it as many times as you need. Even if you ace two topics but bomb the last one, you can say, “Hey, can I just retake this question?” And I'll give you a slightly different problem. If it goes poorly again, we’ll find the pain points and just rinse and repeat until you’ve got it down; at the end of the day, that is the goal. [This approach] takes the stress out of succeeding on the first try, and I hope students get to appreciate the beautiful beast that is math a little bit more without it being overshadowed by grades. It's still teaching them the same things; it's just the structure of the course that's changed. 

For Statistics, we're focusing on probability—you can't do stats without probability—and on misinterpretations of probability, like how people might read the news or a journal article and get the wrong idea. In most stats classes, that kind of [logical fallacy] training usually comes towards the end, which is a wee bit silly, in my opinion. We start by talking about different fallacies that people make in the world of probability and statistics. There's still a lot of math involved, but it’s almost like a liberal arts or humanities class. I want my students to be able to just walk up to an economist or linguist or anthropologist and have a conversation about their work, how they present their data, what kind of issues and obstacles they run into. 

And my Essentials of Computer Programming class is entirely project based: I basically give students a simple program, and they have to make it better. The first project was a silly little game, programming buttons on a calculator to do basic math. Most of the students, even ones who hadn't coded before, could finish it in a day. And when they did, I said, Now you get to decide what you want to do. Everyone added different things: timing elements, memory elements, randomization, visuals. The bare-minimum goal of the class is to show students how to make something they’ve seen before, but the ultimate goal is to show them how to build on it, expand it, and have their own vision and make it come true. I'm approaching it almost as if it were an art class. Every now and then we'll have a lecture, but it’s mostly working on stuff together, with me hovering around to answer questions. That sort of flipped-classroom model has taken some getting used to, but I’m happy being in a room while the kids work on something they're excited about.

What have you been most excited or surprised to learn about teaching since coming to Commonwealth?

Students’ strengths are so different and nuanced! Obviously, every student has their own special set of skills, but I never realized how easy it is to pick out those skills and put a name to them. Like, a student can be really great at doing a sign analysis or a dimensional analysis. Everyone has a nit they're really good at picking or an error they're really good at catching. 

What would you say to “humanities” students who are intrigued but perhaps intimidated by computer science?

Honestly, if I could put [Essentials of Computer Programming] in a humanities department, I would. I think, in an ideal world, computer science and programming would be separate. Obviously there’s so much overlap. But computer science, to me, is a very technical, formal set of rules and systems, whereas programming is a language and an art. It can be hard to dip your toes into traditional “computer science,” but I think everyone can pick up programming in one way or another. 

In my [programming] class, we don't care about writing everything perfectly on the first try; it’s about solving problems, making things, doing it really messily. And then maybe, if we have time, we’ll go back to fix it up later. It isn't a computer-science course—it’s a programming course, which means you can think about it as a language course, as an art course, as a math or a science or a music course. I've been trying to make it as interdisciplinary as possible.

What does success look like in your classes?

It varies, but “automaticity” is a word I’ve been repeating—the idea of being able to sit down with the kind of problem you've seen dozens of times before and solving it without having to think twice. The goal for doing lots of rote problems in isolation is so when we have a more interesting problem, with twenty moving pieces and parts, we don't back away from it. We're able to say, Okay, I know how to do this part and this part and this part, and I know how to combine them. I would rather my students fail every single quiz for a month straight and just practice more until these skills become automatic than cram for a test the night before and forget how to do it the next day. I want these skills to be burned into their brains. If students can automatically work through simple problems and then tackle the trickier, more interesting, more beautiful problems: that's what we're striving towards by the end of the year.

Another thing I'm looking for is asking questions—being able to figure out what constitutes a good question and being okay with boring questions. I think a lot of students struggle with that idea of, “I asked a question, and it didn't get me anywhere, so that means I'm bad at asking questions.” But I really want them to ask hundreds of questions! That’s how you learn how to ask better ones. 

What does a typical day look like for you?

I have office hours in the morning. Then classes, and meetings with students and advisees. During my free time, it's a mix: sometimes I'm really productive, writing quizzes, doing tons of grading; sometimes I’m lazy and pull up a crossword. And I've been trying to read more math writing and incorporate it into my teaching, showing students how to write about math in a more organized manner—but I also want to stress that they can have fun writing about math. They can come up with their own weird definitions and weird symbols if they want to; that's what the best mathematicians do. 

Is there anything you'd like to add?

I'm just very, very happy to be here. I feel very spoiled to have this job. I remember saying, when I interviewed, that all I needed was one perfect day of teaching to feel fully on board. I’ve had so many perfect days of teaching here! They've convinced me that this is definitely where I'm supposed to be right now. I want to keep immersing myself in the world of education, and I'm very, very happy that I get to do that here.

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