“Mr. Cibils, you are terrific! We were terrible.”
Michel Cibils, the winner of a Polysphère award in 2014, has been named this year’s best teacher in the mathematics section. His commitment to teaching is clear as he talks warmly about his subject and his relationship with his students.
“Teaching is about finding innovative ways of getting your point across, developing a whole new way of thinking, and gaining an appreciation for the subject you are teaching.” Michel Cibils, a mathematics professor at EPFL, has been named this year’s best teacher in the mathematics section. He had already won the Polysphère award from AGEPoly in 2014, which prompted his students to make a parody of the Stromae song “Formidable” about him. Cibils spoke to us about how grateful he is for the recognition he has received and about what teaching means to him.
“I may have been awarded this year’s prize for the best teacher in the mathematics section, but the honors also go to the wonderful topics of linear algebra and analysis that I teach in my Bachelor’s and first-year classes. I’m delighted and honored to receive this award, and it gives me confidence that students from all areas of engineering are enjoying my classes on the fundamentals of mathematics,” he says.
“When I teach, I really enjoy combining my know-how in mathematics with my interest in the humanities, because this gives students so much more than just technical knowledge. I want my classes to have a lasting impact on EPFL engineering graduates, which for me means bringing humor and emotion into the classroom. I also want them to learn to approach concepts with a healthy combination of certainty and skepticism. For me it’s important to instill a way of thinking and a mental discipline that will nurture them as scientists, in both their personal and professional lives.”
“As a teacher, I have two sides to my personality. One is that of a traditional teacher who likes writing things out on the chalkboard; the other is that of a tech-savvy teacher: I started using tablets for the classes I give in big lecture halls in 2007. Combining these two teaching styles is not easy – it requires cultural shifts and creativity. If you want your students to keep learning the material well, you have to regularly revitalize, update and modernize your teaching methods. Students seem to appreciate this novel approach, which blends the traditional and the modern, and I find it effective.”
Appreciating your subject
“Teaching is about finding innovative ways of getting your point across, developing a whole new way of thinking, and gaining an appreciation for the subject you are teaching. This requires novel approaches that allow for ‘structured spontaneity’ and ‘controlled improvisation.’ I try to focus on three key pillars of knowledge transfer when I teach: listening, speaking and interpretation. The first of these pillars is about answering students’ questions, which in turn pushes you to question your own knowledge. The second is about knowing first of all what you don’t want to say in a class, as this helps you prepare a good lesson. And the third entails helping young students gain independence and trust their instincts. These pillars correspond to the three core principles of mathematical reasoning that I teach in my classes: use your imagination, apply logic to abstract concepts, and write robust mathematical proofs.”
As enthusiastic as ever
“When I find myself at the front of the lecture hall, standing in front of the hundreds of students who signed up for my class, my enthusiasm is as strong as ever. I want to awaken their curiosity and share my knowledge – and to do so, conversation, interaction and trust are key. I’m often touched by how cheerful and kind students can be; that really helps motivate teachers who teach difficult subjects! This reminds me of when students in one of my Bachelor’s classes on complex analysis wrote a song for me after I won the 2014 Polysphère award. They took inspiration from the chorus to ‘Formidable’ by Stromae, and it created quite a buzz on the Spotted EPFL page.”