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1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
I remember being in Infant school, and my teacher asking the whole class whether 1+2 = 2+1. For the next five minutes, the whole class was shouting: both yes and no! The children kept on changing their minds depending on who at the time was shouting the loudest. For me, 1+2 looked so different to 2+1 that I thought it must be different – so I was one of the loudest voices shouting no. Of course, I was wrong, but I remember that exercise to this very day and how it challenged my thinking.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
Back in the day, I remember using a logbook during a mathematics lesson. Scientific calculators were just appearing into school but hadn’t been formally approved by the education body. I would use my trusty logbook not only for logarithms but for trigonometry as well. Nowadays, interactive whiteboards, sophisticated calculators and computer software are a given – quite a change!
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
I was doing some voluntary work at an inner-city Saturday school, giving a group of 14-year-old boys a mathematics lesson. I started the lesson by saying this:
Me: Right class, I’m going to start the maths lesson now, but first, just as a warm-up, I am going to give you some questions on long multiplication…
(The class starts to protest)
Me: What is wrong?
Class: We cannot do it sir!
Me: What do you mean, you can’t do it?
Class: We have never been taught long multiplication.
Me: What do you mean you never been taught long multiplication?
Class: We’ve never been taught it, sir.
Me: But in 18 months’ time you’ll be sitting your GCSE in mathematics!
Class: We know sir, but we haven’t been taught it!
It then hit me: the statement “mathematics is for everybody” was not true, as I had thought. In this case, these pupils – for whatever reason, whether because of lack of good-quality maths teachers, behaviour issues, or something else – had simply not had even a basic level of mathematics education. This made me feel frustrated and disappointed. However, there is a saying: “don’t get mad, get mathematical”. So I developed a new way of doing long multiplication and when I taught the boys the following week, they excelled at it.
4. Do you practice mathematics differently in company?
Yes! Once in my creative zone, I tend to remain in my head or alone in a room with a large whiteboard. However, once I have developed a methodology, I test the logic by discussing it with colleagues, inviting them to challenge and question anything that I have done.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
Made: mathematicians evolve, develop and grow. A mathematician constantly looks to improve, to learn to become better. As for a mathematics teacher, someone who is good at unlocking closed minds, for me, it is somebody that shows that mathematics is more of a creative rather than a mechanical subject.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
Unlimited, of course! Why? Because mathematics is indisputably the greatest subject in the world! It is the universal global language. Mathematics crosses racial, geographical and cultural boundaries. Mathematics is a beautiful and powerful subject: it is the poetry of logical ideas; it influences the structures of art and music. What other subject is the foundation of science, engineering and technology? Mathematics teaches geography to geographers, economics to economists and physics to physicists. Mathematics is truly a global phenomenon – so a mathematician’s fun is unlimited!
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
Why do mathematicians have a chip on their shoulder?
Because they are always trying to prove something!
You can find Dr Nira Chamberlain on Twitter @ch_nira, and on LinkedIn here.
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