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Mariam is an educational consultant and scholar whose work is mostly concerned with socio-cultural and socio-political questions of educational transfer across contextual boundaries. As a researcher, she has been heavily engaged with the post-curricular reform educational context of Egypt, trying to unpack ways in which practitioners relate to the mindset shift that is underpinning a given curricular reform. While most of her scholarly contributions have mainly targeted the K–12 sector, as a practitioner she has also recently been engaged with cross-cultural curricular transfer in the Higher Education sector.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
My earliest memory of doing mathematics was when I was in fifth grade. At the time, I really enjoyed mathematics. But I had a teacher who was very focused on my performance on mathematical tasks. To get full marks I needed to get all the steps right and in the right order and in the way she wanted to see them. She never approved of a solution that adopted a different approach to solve the same problem and she never approved of partially right answers, so I always scored very low in her class. She always said things like, “Are you stupid?”, “Why don’t you understand this?”, etc.* It made an impression on me as I felt I enjoyed working in mathematics, yet I never received good marks and so in my mind I always felt there was something wrong. I thought, “I understand it, I enjoy it, I like thinking about it”, but I was never good at the things that mattered on the test and so my scores were always low. There was always this struggle between what I thought about maths and the enjoyment that I felt when I was doing it and my ability to achieve good marks on the test.
* This is an account of historical verbal 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.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
I’ve been involved in mathematics education for quite a long time. I’ve been involved as a school student, as an undergraduate student and post-graduate student all the way to PhD, and currently I’m teaching undergraduates and graduates, so I’ve been involved across the spectrum in different functions. Having said that, I’m not sure if it is the field that has changed much or if it is related to the fact that I have changed or seen things differently because I have been taking on different roles in the system. So, I would argue that the field hasn’t changed, it’s just that I’ve looked at it from different perspectives. Largely the focus still seems to be heavily oriented towards the adoption of procedures and the scoring on tests. Occasionally, one or two individuals – researchers or practitioners – break the pattern by daring to be more problem solving oriented or more interdisciplinary in their approach to mathematics.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
I think it was during the time when I was doing my PhD. I started working with mathematics teachers, so I talked with a lot of them. At that time education reform in mathematics K–12 teaching and learning was happening in my country, and I had studied the reform and the curriculum that resulted from these policies theoretically. So, when I spoke with the people who were actually doing it, I was surprised at how little connection there was between the philosophy behind the reformed curriculum and the way teachers perceived the day-to-day implementation of it.
4. Do you practise mathematics differently in company?
I think the question about company is closely tied with the question about context, and the context can be social, cultural or even political. Generally, I don’t think there are any two people who perceive mathematical constructs in the same way, so, I don’t think anybody has the same perception of mathematics, even if you come from similar backgrounds. What is meant by problem solving or critical thinking is a different thing for every person in my opinion, so, depending on who you are, the unfolding of this experience becomes very different. If you are with people who envision mathematics as a subordinate subject that merely supports other subjects – such as the sciences – then everything you do together would stay within this framework, and mathematics would be very encapsulated. If you are in a place where people view mathematics as having a space of its own, you find them looking at all the other borderlines: how mathematics affects the sociological; how mathematics affects the socio-political; etc. Mathematics then becomes a leading actor in a sense, as opposed to it being perceived as having a supporting role.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
Both. I think some people are just good at maths, and I think that’s something we have to acknowledge. But I think after you acknowledge that, some people who are born brilliant mathematicians become very bad mathematics teachers and very bad mathematicians; they become this way simply because the system cancels out everything that they are good at, and this goes back to the experience I had as a child. I’m not claiming that I was born a good mathematician, but I had interest, and the system continuously reinforced the thought that I didn’t fit into it. The opposite is also true; a lot of people have been born without a talent for mathematics but because they’re in a system that supports them, they become good mathematicians.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
One of the fun things I notice as a mathematician is when whole families are doing maths together. Sometimes there are school mathematics events where whole families are doing maths and children really notice how maths is part of your everyday life. This is what I call the most fun part of doing maths.
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
No, I don’t 😊. Most of the jokes I know have insinuations that link to how difficult mathematics is or how it is only meant for some people (some genders). It would be an interesting field to explore. It would be interesting to look into the impact of jokes and comics in relation to how we can make mathematics more relevant and amiable to the learner.
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