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Alison works at NRICH, Cambridge University’s innovative collaboration between the Faculties of Mathematics and Education , part of the University’s Millennium Mathematics Project.
The NRICH site provides thousands of free online mathematics resources for ages 3 to 18. Alison is a Secondary Teacher Associate on the project and has been working there for nine years, with particular focus on problem solving.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
My mum trained as a primary school teacher, so she used to start mathematical conversations with me when I was very small. She would always cut my apple into quarters and then thirds, and we would count the groups together. She used to joke that for most children, you bribed them to do maths by giving them food, but with me, she bribed me to eat my fruit by letting me do maths with it! I was obsessed with counting things; I noticed that the number of stairs at Grandma's house wasn't the same as the number of stairs at home. I also liked music and used to count the time signatures of anything playing on the radio. There were so many opportunities for being mathematical at home when I was very small, which meant I got off to a flying start when I went to school.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
I did my PGCE in 2003. Three-part lessons were the big thing, and seemingly everyone was obsessed with Tarsia jigsaws and loop cards. Interactive whiteboards were just starting to make an appearance, and we were all getting very excited about dynamic geometry. The major changes while I was in the classroom were the abolition of Key Stage 3 tests and GCSE coursework, which I saw as an exciting change which would free up classroom time for more exciting teaching opportunities.
Since joining NRICH in 2009, I would say a major change has been the change in the role of social media, both positive and negative. I see such amazing support and dialogue on maths education Twitter but I also see nastiness, as people with entrenched views tear others down instead of building them up. But in general, the one constant in maths education since I became a teacher has been the hard work and dedication that so many people put into making maths accessible, comprehensible and enjoyable for as wide an audience as possible.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
That happened the first time I encountered bad management in teaching. I won't go into details, but early on in my teaching career a senior colleague chose to pull me out of my classroom and shout at me over an issue with some reports. Yelling is not a good way of getting the best out of students, let alone teachers! For me, teaching is all about building positive relationships, and I was taken aback by the lack of compassion shown to me that day.
On a more positive note, there are certain maths problems I've met that have completely blown me away and left me open-mouthed. Summing Consecutive Numbers was first introduced to me at a department meeting shortly before I left teaching to join NRICH. The more I explored, the more discoveries I made, and it's still one of my favourite problems.
4. Do you practice mathematics differently in company?
I have lots of hang-ups about my mathematical abilities and can get very anxious about doing maths in front of other people. I really like MathsJam, both the monthly meetups and the annual conference, because there are opportunities to do maths with others, but it's also completely ok to say, "I need to think about this on my own for a bit". As an autistic introvert, sometimes I really just need my own space to think, but talking about a problem with other people gives me insights and experiences that I otherwise wouldn't get!
Because I am not a visual thinker and I struggle with three-dimensional stuff, I've had experiences where people have assumed I can easily see a solution to a problem when I have a complete mental block. I guess it's a classic example of the so-called spiky profile in autistic people – people make assumptions about what I can and can't do, so they are surprised when I can't do something they perceive as easy, especially when they've just seen me do something they perceive as difficult! So I guess I am quite defensive when doing maths around people I don't know.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
As someone who leads a fair amount of Professional Development workshops, I definitely think brilliant maths teachers are made! Some personalities are better suited to teaching than others, but I would be disappointed to meet a maths teacher who thought they were already born brilliant enough and didn't need to learn any more. The main thing that the maths teachers I admire have in common is their willingness to grow and learn as professionals, and to reflect on their own practice.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
The instant when you solve a problem, or understand a new idea, particularly if it's something that took a long time and a lot of hard thinking to get to. A close second is showing someone a cool maths thing or sharing a problem and watching them get hooked!
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
I have so many favourite maths jokes. But one that's always guaranteed to make me smile, no matter how many times I hear it: why did the computer scientist confuse Halloween and Christmas? Because Oct 31 = Dec 25.
You can find Alison Kiddle on Twitter.
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