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Gabriel Stylianides is Professor of Mathematics Education at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Oxford’s Worcester College. A Fulbright scholar, he received MSc degrees in mathematics and mathematics education, and then his PhD in mathematics education, at the University of Michigan.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
I remember being a young boy travelling in the car with my family, and my father (now a retired primary school teacher), very passionate about mathematics, posing maths problems to me and my twin brother Andreas, who is now Professor of Mathematics Education at Cambridge. Andreas and I were both eager to be the first to come up with the answers to the problems that our father posed to us, but for our father what mattered the most was not the answer. His follow-up questions were always the same: “How did you figure it out? How else could you have solved the problem?” These early problem-solving experiences with mathematics as a sense-making activity shaped my attitudes towards mathematics and planted the seeds for a career in a mathematics-related discipline, which turned out to be in mathematics education.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
Mathematics education is a relatively new field that continues to grow and develop. Indicative of the progress made by the field are the large number of new journals that have been established in recent years and the more rigorous publication standards in some of the older journals. Our understanding of particular phenomena in mathematics education is growing at a fast pace too. Consider, for example, the kind of content knowledge that is important for successful mathematics teaching. Contrary to early research in this area, we now understand that teachers’ coursework in undergraduate mathematics is a poor proxy for the multi-faceted notion of teachers’ content knowledge for mathematics teaching, which includes components such as teachers’ understanding of students’ ways of thinking and how to represent the subject matter to make it understandable to students.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
I was still a doctoral student in the United States when, together with Andreas, we sent our first journal article submission to one of the best journals in the field. Our expectations from the submission were low: wait several months to receive some useful feedback on our paper that we could then use to improve the paper and seek publication elsewhere. Much to our surprise, 7-10 days after we submitted the paper the editor came back to us (on our birthday!) accepting the paper subject to minor revisions. Flabbergasted by this outcome, we sought advice from Ed Silver, my doctoral supervisor who was editing JRME at the time. Ed congratulated us on this outcome and suggested that we enjoy this publication experience because in all likelihood it would not repeat itself. Indeed, 16 years later, no other publication experience has come anywhere close to that first one!
4. Do you practise mathematics differently in company?
Absolutely. Doing mathematics with my two daughters (3- and 5-years-old) is totally different from doing mathematics alone and definitely much more fun! Observing how children’s mathematical ways of thinking are developing is truly pleasing.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
I don’t believe in this dichotomy. Teachers can be successful (I’d like to avoid using the word “brilliant”) in different ways and can have a range of attributes that can be best suited to particular groups or individual students. Teacher education programmes have a crucial role to play in helping teachers develop important skills, strategies, and knowledge that are essential for successful teaching. At the same time, however, successful teachers also have some personal traits – such as commitment to all students’ learning and wellbeing, passion for the teaching profession and the subject areas they teach, continued interest in learning and developing as teachers – which are not easy to cultivate in teacher education and so are attributes we want to see when we recruit new teachers in the profession.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
When you are working on a problem that puzzled you for a long time and eventually the pieces come together and you have a solution!
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
One day a mathematician decides that he is sick of mathematics and wants to become a fireman. So, the mathematician walks down to the fire department and asks the fire chief if she can hire him. The chief says, "Well, you look like a nice guy. I'd be glad to hire you, but first I have to ask you some questions." The chief takes the mathematician to the alley behind the fire department which contains a dumpster, a spigot, and a hose. The chief then says, "Okay, you're walking in the alley and you see the dumpster here is on fire. What do you do?" The mathematician replies, "Well, I hook up the hose to the spigot, turn the water on, and put out the fire." The chief says, "That's great... Now I have one more question for you. What do you do if you're walking down the alley and you see the dumpster is not on fire?" The mathematician puzzles over the question for a while and then says, "I light the dumpster on fire." The chief yells, "What? That's horrible! Why would you do that?" The mathematician replies, "Well, that way I reduce the problem to one I've already solved."
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