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Benjamin Rott is Professor for Mathematics Education at the University of Cologne, Germany.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
Oddly, I really don’t remember much mathematics from primary education (mostly calculating stuff, which I do not consider as doing mathematics). In grade 5 (first year of secondary school), I joined an extracurricular activity on technical drawing which required a lot of spatial thinking, and that was particularly memorable for me.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
In Germany, maths education seems to have got a lot younger. When I started about 10 years ago, there were not many PhD students at our annual conferences. Nowadays, there is regularly a three-digit number of young researchers participating. This shows that mathematics education as a scientific field is evolving and growing which I very much appreciate.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
In a positive way: learning about “thinking classrooms” by Peter Liljedahl (see here for more information on this).
In a negative way: I gave a presentation in which I criticized the particular approach of a researcher who I highly respected. I did not criticize the person or the way his/her work was done, but only the approach and suggested a different one. In my understanding, this is the way that research should be done. This researcher, however, did not like this presentation and felt attacked in a personal way. Afterwards, we had a long private discussion, which this researcher ended with telling me that as a young researcher, I would not be allowed to criticize him/her. It made me sad that it was not possible for us to work this out reasonably.
4. Do you practice mathematics differently in company?
I regularly (but too rarely) solve problems with my PhD students. I enjoy sharing ideas with them. However, there is always a time limit and other things to discuss. When I do mathematics alone (for fun or preparing a lecture), I often take more time for this endeavor. I also enjoy mathematical puzzles and problems from problem collections that I (try to) solve like Sudokus as a recreational activity.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
There are some people that are very good in dealing with children and young adults. But even those do not have more than a head start. Becoming a brilliant teacher is like becoming an expert in every other field (like being an expert musician, a chess player, or a problem solver): thousands of hours of deliberate practice (studying, thinking about it, discussing about it, trying and failing and trying again).
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
I don’t think that this question can be answered in a general way. This mathematician enjoys sports (mostly Judo or cycling) and deep discussions, but also being able to work for hours without being interrupted or having any deadlines to meet (which is very rare these days…).
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
Maybe not really a joke, but a funny twist on a typical way of thinking mathematically: Here is a proof by contradiction for the fact that there are no boring numbers. If there were boring numbers, you could list them and the first entry would be the smallest of all boring numbers, which would make it interesting and therefore not be boring at all…