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Professor Zalman Usiskin is an Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Chicago and directed the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project from 1987 to 2019.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
My earliest memory of doing mathematics is in September 1949. I was six years old and it was the end of the baseball season in the USA. In baseball a batter has a batting average – the number of hits divided by at bats, which is usually rounded to three decimal places. A good batting average is over 0.300 (spoken as “three hundred”). Three batters, including Jackie Robinson (the first Black player in the major leagues and the most exciting player of his time), had the same batting average, which is most unusual considering that the scores are rounded to three decimal places. At the end of that season, they had to go to four decimal places to decide who had the highest batting average, which had never happened before. From this, I learned that one goes to additional decimal places to order numbers. This is probably my most prominent early memory of doing mathematics. But before that, I had learned to read from an atlas, which involved looking at populations and other big numbers.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
Mathematics education in the U.S. tends to cycle. When I started in the 1960s, it was the time of ‘new math’, a world-wide trend to introduce theory and structure into the curriculum as a way to improve basic skills. It was a time of great innovation in curriculum in our field. This approach tended to be particularly nice for better students, but poorer students and unprepared teachers were often lost. In the 1970s, a ‘back-to-basics’ movement took hold, with an emphasis on basic skills over everything else. This was a low time for mathematics education in the U.S. In response to that movement, the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM) and NCTM redefined what was meant by ‘basic’ to emphasize problem-solving and in the 1980s NCTM came out with its Curriculum and Evaluation Standards broadening the curriculum. This resulted in another explosion of curriculum in the 1990s. And then, in 2010, we got the Common Core movement, which is essentially another ‘back-to-basics’ approach to mathematics. Things appear to shift back and forth, but the greatest change through all this is the use of technology – from 4-function to scientific calculators to graphing calculators to computer algebra systems to DO math, and from paper to electronic means to DELIVER math.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
In the 1970s I submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation to develop a first-year algebra course through applications. The response by NSF to my proposal was to inquire whether I would be interested in joining a group at the University of Illinois (two hours away from the University of Chicago) that was working on a similar course. The Illinois group sent me some of the material they had developed and I truly was flabbergasted. The course was a theoretical approach to applied mathematics – there were no applications, there was no use of real-world data. I reported back my thoughts to NSF and received the grant for which I had applied. Out of this came the course Algebra Through Applications that was later published by NCTM and that had great influence on the first edition of the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project (UCSMP) materials that were developed in the 1980s. For information about UCSMP, visit http://ucsmp.uchicago.edu.
4. Do you practice mathematics differently in company?
I think when you’re on your own you play. When with others or in a group, you are more likely to be solving a task together.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
A brilliant maths teacher is definitely made, but the influences that your parents have had on you are clearly important. The ways in which they talk to you, their parenting style, how they teach you to think and how much liberty to think you are given are all important influences. All of these transfer directly to the ways in which teachers interact with their students in learning situations.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
The most fun is when you’ve discovered a mathematical result that all of your colleagues understand but that none of them knew before.
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
I don’t have a memory for jokes but I do see (or try to see) humor in events around me. For instance, as I am typing this sentence and the British version of Word has called out “humor” as being misspelled. To me, the inconsistency is humorous…
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