# Seven questions with... Elena Nardi

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- Seven questions with... Elena Nardi

## Seven questions with... Elena Nardi

Elena is Professor of Mathematics Education at the School of Education & Lifelong Learning of the University of East Anglia (UEA), in Norwich, England. She completed her BSc in mathematics at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and her postgraduate studies in mathematics education at the Universities of Cambridge (MPhil) and Oxford (DPhil). At UEA, she leads the RME group, co-leads the MathTASK research and development programme and is director of the MA Mathematics Education course. She is author of *Amongst mathematicians* and is one of the editors-in-chief of the *International Journal of Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education* (IJRUME).

**1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics? **

I started reading, writing and counting at about the age of 4 but I remember being aware of doing mathematics, as something distinct and special, from around Year 5. I remember doing word problems and being ecstatic at how I could translate the words in the problem into numbers and relationships – and how playing with these then gave me an answer to the problem. I remember sitting in my dad’s desk and I remember my surprise when I looked at the clock and several hours had passed without me noticing. This sensation of time passing so quickly when doing mathematics has stayed with me since!

**2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?**

Here are two things that I suspect could no longer happen in a (mathematics) lesson (or so I hope). *My Y6 teacher had a smack-the-naughty-children routine (this is 1979 mind you): for most kids it was two simultaneous smacks on both cheeks (this hurts!), but naughty kids who were good at mathematics received only one smack on one cheek (this hurts too, but less). I am still furious at him for turning those of us who were good at maths into unintentional teacher’s favourites. I am also resentful towards my Y11 mathematics teacher who would ask a question, regularly turn first to the boys in class to elicit an answer and – when a girl volunteered one – exclaim, “Surely, you won’t let them – girls! – get there first, will you?!” For the record, three mathematicians came out of that class and all are girls. I still hear stories like this from my female BA Y3 students.

Thankfully, in recent years, media, popular culture, public discourse, societal values and (mathematics) education policy and practice have been moving away from damaging stereotypes at a good pace. There is still some way to go but we are getting there – and how we support teachers in doing so is very near the top of my to-do list as a mathematics education researcher!

* This is an account of historical abuse in a classroom. Cambridge Mathematics does not endorse or condone such abuse and is publishing this account solely as part of the personal recollection related by the respondent, who also does not endorse or condone such abuse.

**3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.**

In 1991, I had just graduated from the mathematics department in Thessaloniki and I was getting ready for postgraduate studies in pure mathematics, most likely in Grenoble (France) and most likely in abstract algebra. Alan Bishop, then at the University of Cambridge, came to Thessaloniki to give a seminar and my didactics of mathematics professor asked me to translate for the audience. Hearing Alan talk about ethnomathematics – how mathematics grows in every culture and community, at all times and in every corner of the world, and what this means for education – blew my mind. I was reading a bit of history of mathematics at the time but mostly the standard, Eurocentric stuff. In October of that same year, I started my MPhil in mathematics education at Cambridge, under Alan’s supervision.

On a related note – inspiration may come when you least expect it – about 10 years ago, when we were about to start what became the anti-ableist CAPTeaM project with collaborators in Brazil, I very vividly recall being completely blown away by how many pre- and in-service mathematics teachers would come to our MathTASK workshops – often having travelled for hours on a bus through the rainforest. And it wasn’t just the number of people that impressed me: it was above all the passion and absolute dedication with which they would stay with us for hours on end doing and debating the tasks. I know that professional development sessions aim to have an impact on the participants, but I think it was my colleagues and me who were most impacted by the participants!

**4. Do you practise mathematics differently in company?**

Yes and no. Sometimes I need some time to get my head around a problem first so that I can then hear better what others have to say. Sometimes, I need to start talking with others straight away to bounce ideas off each other and brainstorm. In any case, even when I do mathematics on my own, it’s always in the form of a dialogue with myself. I like to be my own toughest devil’s advocate …

**5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?**

Made! All you need is love (of mathematics and of communicating about mathematics). And you need to take joy in helping others find this love for themselves. Then, there is the vast reserve of mathematics education research, resources, tools, programmes, etc., that can help you develop the specific skills you need in order to do a top-notch job.

**6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?**

There are 8 billion of us humans on planet Earth and there are as many ways to have the most fun. Mathematicians are like everyone else. But there is something deeply endearing, irresistible, infectious even, in a bunch of mathematicians-friends hanging out and, over food and drink and music, cracking jokes *they* can only get and find absolutely hilarious.

**7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?**

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