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Dr Marcia Burrell is Professor and Chair of Curriculum and Instruction at State University of New York at Oswego, USA.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
My earliest memory of doing mathematics was when I was nine years old – and it was actually in Luton, in England. I was in a classroom, and I realized that because I did not do well on an examination I was going to be placed in a lower class – a class for kids who did not ‘get it’. I remember feeling upset and wondering why they were not talking to me about this. Of course, I was only nine years old, and yet I knew something was wrong. We moved to the United States that year, so I don’t know what would have happened to me if we had not moved...
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
Honestly – I do not think it has changed at all. Thirty years ago while doing my master's degree in mathematics education we were talking about the things we are talking about now – for example problem solving and Pólya. Call me a pessimist, but I do not think things have changed!
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something flabbergasted you.
This is a tough one. Flabbergasted? Several years ago I worked at a community college, and I remember clearly one of my students from my remedial class. She needed to learn everything, from arithmetic to beginning algebra. I worked hard to make sure she learned what she needed to and supported her as much as I could. Within a four-year period, she emailed me to tell me that she had been admitted into a Ph.D. program at McGill, with a full ride (tuition fee waiver). Despite such a shaky start, she had learned what she needed to be successful, had taken all the necessary math courses as an undergraduate, and continued to a Ph.D. program. She was thanking me for my patience and me believing in her. I had no idea that my practices could help someone move through mathematics so successfully – it left me totally speechless. (She is more mathematically competent than I am now!)
4. Do you practice mathematics differently in company?
I do not practice math all that much anymore, although I have just come back from a sabbatical where I managed to do some! I do a lot of administrative things now, and I hope my role is more of a cheerleader around what we should be doing to help students access mathematics. I think the question about doing mathematics ourselves is a good point: if we do not do the math for a while, do we lose our credibility when it comes to talking about reforms? I think that I try to look mathematical, but often I just do math in a way that makes sense to me and then try to figure out how to do it the way others expect me to – performing it, perhaps. As a teacher educator I really believe that math teachers should continually do math wherever possible, whether it’s in the form of puzzles or problems.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
A brilliant math teacher is made – an absolute no to the ‘born’ possibility. I think once you delve deeply into those teachers who are good or great, you realize that they have been mentored and guided ‘into’ their brilliance.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
The most fun a mathematician can have is solving a problem. A puzzle is fun. The process of solving the problem is the chewing, and the swallowing is the satisfaction (you might have heard this before). Seeing someone under my tutelage solve a problem and get it is always fun too.
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
I have heard this joke from kids I teach:
Q: Why is 6 afraid of 7? A: Because 7 ate 9!