The Emergency Black-Box Checklist

I’ve been having a little argument with five-years-ago me. The question is this:

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Five-years-ago me? Throw his drink in your face. He’d tell you that rote thinking is the bane of his working days, that deep understanding is the whole point of learning mathematics. He’d tell you: No black boxes, ever.

Today-me is less convinced. Don’t working mathematicians, from the ground floor all the way up to Andrew Wiles, sometimes use black boxes? Isn’t it common sense that sometimes you need to use tools that you can’t build for yourself?

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I’m still wary of equipping students with black boxes, but these days I’m willing to do it, so long as three conditions are met. I hesitate to share this crude checklist, knowing my colleagues out there in the profession will have wiser ways to frame the tradeoffs. (After all, aren’t checklists too binary, too black-and-white, for an idea as elusive and shaded as “understanding”?)

Nevertheless, my checklist goes something like this:

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