Dr Laura Tuohilampi is a mathematics education researcher at the University of New South Wales School of Education, and is a multi-award-winning mathematics educator, author and researcher. She gives talks and workshops globally on how to inspire mathematical learning and avoid the negative connotations around maths.
With her fantastic team at Maths for Humans, she started their mission originally in Finland to change how people typically think and feel towards mathematics. Since then they have impacted students, educators and researchers all around the world with their new and exciting approaches to learning.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
When I was a Year 2 student, there was a long sequence of addition and subtraction on the blackboard. It was something like 5 + 2 + 3 - 4 + 1 - 3 =. I knew the answer immediately, but the teacher wanted us to take it one step at a time – “First, let’s find out what is 5 + 2.” I was just too excited – and only 8 years old – so I couldn’t hold myself in. I gave the answer, and the teacher got furious! She made me stand the rest of the lesson quietly in front of the class. Giving the right answer, having felt so good about knowing fancy maths in the very first minutes of the lesson, resulted in me reflecting upon my disobedience in front of my peers for some 43 long minutes. Those minutes assured me that teachers are just humans, and that even a child sometimes knows better how to make maths motivating for learners with varying skillsets and interests.
I was the motivated student who read science literature in my free time. I didn’t struggle with learning maths the traditional way, but I learned how to obey! I have many sweet memories about how fascinating mathematics is. But how it was taught in schools never made much sense to me. It didn’t help to really develop my understanding – that I learned elsewhere. And more importantly, I came to learn how the way maths was taught made my peers dislike maths, feel helpless and anxious.
How I learned the real maths, to make connections and see maths in the very unique way that later made me the “where is this used” and “how am I supposed to enjoy and benefit from this” maths influencer, developed despite the school maths, not because of it.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
Nowadays most teachers and maths educators share the appreciation of open, collaborative problem-solving activities. Amazing resources exist (the ones of Cambridge Mathematics are among my favourites). What we still struggle with is how to embed learning experiences that are undetermined and develop organically in classrooms, while simultaneously following a structured syllabus. We still mainly assess learning outcomes that are easy to measure, even though there might be two students getting the same exam results, but only one of them being able to really transfer their knowledge.
Dr Jo Boaler has conducted convincing studies about the massive benefits of “learning on the go:” you give your students confusing, open investigations, and teach procedures and strategies when they are needed. Or simply establish that what your students naturally come up with is the strategy to be taught and learned.
It is a big leap of faith for a teacher to release some time from “this is what we will cover today” to “let’s see what we covered today.” I’m still curiously observing how this “quasi-experimental” maths revolution evolves, and I’m doing my own share by sharing tasks and teacher development resources through Maths for Humans.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
I have watched, re-watched, and made all my teacher students watch the “Math class needs a makeover" TEDTalk by Dr Dan Meyer. The video opened my eyes, and it also helped me to see what the solution to better mathematics education might be.
Dr Meyer talks about layers we have in the tasks. Instead of giving compelling problems, we overexplain everything, we give out all the details that matter (the tower is xx m high...); we create non-authentic situations (the stone is thrown, and it will be at the height of yy...); we don’t even let our students ask the questions (Hm, would I like to know the height of the tower?)! Why would you be interested in solving something someone else has been interested in? Why would anyone get much joy out of just retaking the steps that someone else has already discovered? To see such tasks from a student’s viewpoint please click this link. WARNING – strong language that some may find offensive.
Dr Meyer talks about the typical maths tasks being served by “smoothing the path and congratulating our students on being able to overcome the tiniest cracks.” That is not gratifying.
I think that the dominating mathematics teaching practices resemble helicopter parenting. Many researchers, like Dr Hiroko K. Warshauer, talk about productive struggle. I believe we all entertain the idea of giving students challenges, but we should take it seriously and see how difficult it really is to refrain from doing it for your students when you, as their teacher feel like it's never going to go anywhere – to really have that trust that they will figure it out, they will not give up. How do you do that as a teacher? Support without telling what to do? That’s the tricky question.
4. Do you practise mathematics differently in company?
I think I get treated as the great maths Goddess in company – maths is seen very authoritarian, so having a PhD in it makes people fear to reveal how they think, as if they didn’t have the right to reason things in their own way.
I remember having a dinner with my three close friends, and saying something like, “well, we’re five, so we’ll get the whole pie destroyed.” My friends took a long time to check who was right, were we really 5? Of course, we laughed at it, my friends are really good at maths and realised how weird the situation was – it was again one more trait of the long years of always having someone there to judge your maths.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
Dr Deborah Ball, the renowned mathematics education researcher, has brought up the issues of seeing good mathematics teaching as something “magical.” If you have to be born with it, what’s the point of professional development? It is a fixed mindset approach to see mathematics teaching as something that couldn’t be chopped into practical actions that you can vary in your classes. In Maths for Humans, we have actually created an all-inclusive PD program for teachers helping to make themselves brilliant maths teachers by making tiny changes every week!
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
I love it when I can just “carry a problem in my head.” I mean, I can memorise a good problem and entertain myself with finding the solution to it for days when waiting for a bus or lining up in a grocery store. For example, I loved the prisoner hat riddle by TEDEd.
Maths doesn’t take any space, doesn’t hold any weight. It’s the most convenient way to have fun!
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
I have two:
“Mathematicians solve problems you didn’t know you had in ways you don’t understand.”
“I’m a maths teacher, of course I have problems.” :)
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