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Fran is the primary professional development lead at NRICH and joined the project in 2013. Prior to this she worked in lower, primary, middle, secondary and upper schools as an Advanced Skills Teacher of mathematics for 7 years and a subject leader for 5 years before that. Despite a slightly scenic route to the classroom, via an engineering degree and jobs at Techniquest and the British Science Association (think Butlins Redcoat but for science and mathematics!) she is passionate about mathematical problem solving and sharing her enthusiasm for it with the wide variety of teachers and children who work with NRICH.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
I had a fantastically maverick teacher in my fourth year of primary school and apart from working through questions from a Nuffield textbook (which I really enjoyed), I remember a project where everyone in the class made their own cardboard computer from a cereal box. We had to create some data cards for our classmates by cutting out holes or slots in the tops of the cards. These represented facts about us, e.g. hair colour, left or right-handedness etc. The cards were stacked together and placed inside the top of the box. You “asked your computer a question” by inserting pencils through the holes in both the box and the cards and then let go of the cards, so that those that fell to the bottom were the answer to your questions, e.g. the people with brown hair who were left-handed. I don’t know how many lessons it must have taken us to complete this activity, but I remember the feeling of fascination in creating something that would answer questions you posed! (I was intrigued to see if this was an idea that could be found on the internet now, so googled a bit and found this blog).
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
My experience of maths at school in the 80s and 90s was quite formulaic and teacher-led (being shown algorithms and then copying them), although I quite enjoyed this. I got involved in an engineering project in sixth form and this experience and my degree taught me the usefulness of mathematics as an applied science. I only really encountered the playfulness of mathematics when I studied for my PGCE and was introduced to a whole other world of exploration by a lecturer called Peter Huckstep at Homerton College. Having become a middle school teacher, it took me another few years, and becoming a subject leader, to discover that subject associations existed and the rich tapestry of people and resources that they could offer. I remember my first joint conference where I knew no-one and I’m sure I was the proverbial a child in a sweet shop, wanting to sample everything! I like to think that what is on offer in terms of mathematics education in the UK is now broader and more inclusive than ever before. However, this may be because I’m lucky enough to be part of the “mathematical resources production team,” rather than a compulsory member of the audience, and therefore can see the bigger picture of what we’re trying to do as mathematics communicators.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
When I taught secondary students, I had a student called Joe who’d transferred into my set with only a few weeks to go before a re-sit exam (this was when modular exams made up the total GCSE grade and were taken over a period of time). I’d asked him to come and see me after the lesson to talk through a sample paper that he’d sat with his previous teacher. Our conversation ran something like this:
Me: Let’s have a look at this question Joe.
Joe: Nah that’s alright miss, I know the answer to that one’s 7.
Me: Yes, but I’m not sure you know why it’s 7?
Joe: That’s ok miss I’ll just remember it, there’s not many questions on the paper. I’ll just memorise the ones I got wrong.
Me: Joe the questions on the next paper will be different from these ones.
Joe: (laughing knowingly) Nah, nah, you don’t understand miss! It’s a re-sit.
Needless to say, he wasn’t impressed when I explained otherwise. But I was stunned that the situation hadn’t been made clear to him sooner, and that he thought a maths grade could be achieved just by memorising answers!
4. Do you practise mathematics differently in company?
It really depends on the company! I’ve been told I’m fairly ebullient and there are areas of mathematics I feel comfortable working on with other people. But I definitely appreciate quiet and space to think for myself if the topic is more challenging, so when teaching, I try to remember that there are different preferences and styles of working.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
I think those people I’ve encountered who I consider to be brilliant maths teachers, are so because they consider their audience as well as the content and the transmission method. So perhaps that’s more of a vote for “made” than born. But I have also been inspired by people who seem to excel at teaching as a result of having maximised their nature – so perhaps it’s a bit of both.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
I’ll assume we’re limited to mathematics here (!) and as I can’t comment generically, will say that some of the most fun I’ve had doing mathematics has been:
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
Brian Bilston’s poem Word Crunching:
on a page
but then each line grew
by the word sum of the previous two
until I started to worry at all these words coming with such frequency
because, as you can see, it can be easy to run out of space when a poem gets all Fibonacci sequency.
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