What does a great mathematician look like?

By: Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer

Perhaps a lot like you!

Close your eyes—no, wait. Read the following questions and then close your eyes. Ask yourself, “What does a great mathematician look like?” Are you curious about the answer? What kind of person do you imagine? Are you drawing on multiple sources of information? What other questions might you ask? OK, open your eyes. If you are curious, imaginative, resourceful, and focused more on questions than answers, then grab a mirror. You look a lot like a great mathematician.

A new eBook to inspire great mathematicians in your classroom

Your classroom, campus, and district are bursting at the seams with great mathematicians who have yet to see themselves as such. Perhaps math is mysterious for some because it is shrouded in symbols and imaginary numbers and problems seem solvable only by stoned-faced, scruffy-bearded, centuries-old men.

Our newest eBook, What does a great mathematician look like: 18 faces to help change the picture, offers a more comprehensive view of great mathematicians. In it, Euclid, Pythagoras, Turing, and Newton are joined by Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn, as well as Alvarez, Ochoa, and Al-Khwarizmi, just to name a few.

Why students need math role models

Clearly, some students see themselves as capable in math, and not every student needs a role model to be inspirated to learn (see One key difference in math achievement). However, all students benefit from connections with mathematicians who seem familiar. As Coyle (2009) explains, connecting with others and their achievements creates a sense of future belonging—a primal cue that triggers motivation and huge outpourings of energy.

The sense of future belonging is activated when you see someone like you achieve. It’s all about perceptions of self that, when triggered, can lead to identification as a mathematician, a musician, or a reader; the list is endless (McPherson in Coyle, 2009). We gravitate toward relatable role models—shared gender, ethnicity, hometown. Even something as simple as a shared birthday can trigger the sense of future belonging. Here’s how it works:

Quick—name the first human to break the four-minute mile.

It was Roger Bannister by 0:06 of a second—about the time it takes you to blink.

That was easy. Try this one:

Who shattered Bannister’s record a mere 46 days later?

I’ll leave it to you to discover the answer—the story is amazing—but for that runner, the sense of future belonging, that connection, led to a huge outpouring of energy (precisely 1.5 seconds’ worth of energy).

How this eBook bolsters math achievement

Actually, you bolster math achievement. This eBook joins the other resources you have selected to infuse mathematics throughout the curriculum. Each featured mathematician brings a unique contribution to the field. You determine how that contribution connects to your students. Here are some thoughts from other great mathematicians:

  • Teach students to ask the “next question” (Airries, 2017; Hess, 2013)

  • Focus on mathematical curiosity rather than a set of repetitive procedures (Airries, 2017)

  • Think of mathematics as solving the world’s puzzles (Urschel, 2017)

The “next question” and mathematical curiosity

Returning to the story of Roger Bannister and John Landy (had you found the answer yet?), think about the next questions students might ask. The first questions are obvious: “What was Bannister’s time?” and “What was the difference between his time and Landy’s?” It’s the questions that follow that will take mathematics deeper. For example:

  • Did track conditions play a role in either race?

  • If so, what percent of the variance in time can be attributed to track condition variables?

  • Are there other variables to consider?

  • After reading the eBook, which mathematician ignited your sense of future belonging—who is your Bannister to Landy’s sub-four-minute mile?

  • How can you apply what you’ve learned from this mathematician to your work in this class?

  • What kinds of questions would your math role model ask if he or she were working on your assignment?

Solving the world’s problems

John Urschel, Baltimore Raven and doctoral candidate at MIT, might spark that sense of future belonging in budding mathematicians, as he writes, “Math gives us the tools to solve the world’s puzzles.”

The eBook features mathematicians who solved amazing puzzles. Among them Johnson, Jackson, and Vaughn, who solved the trajectory puzzle for NASA, giving it the edge in the 1960s space race. (Have your students seen Hidden Figures yet?)

Perhaps you have some students who find computers puzzling. Read about Ada Lovelace, who wrote the first complex algorithm meant to be carried out by a machine. In other words, she wrote a program for the world’s first “computer,” which was called an Analytical Engine. Curious? Lovelace wrote the code in 1842 (that’s not a typo—it was eighteen-forty-two)! What kinds of questions would your students ask?

Perhaps your students will be among those who consider mathematics as a tool for solving the world’s problems in this century. For example, each year 1.6 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer (Nazaryn, 2014), and today’s researchers solve puzzles labeled the “cancer equation,” working on “quantitative models” and “cracking the code” (Californo & Bosker, 2016). Which of your students sees him or herself as part of the team that will solve the equation, explain the model, and crack cancer’s code?

What does a great mathematics teacher look like?

A lot like you. Click below to download our latest eBook, and then explore some of our additional math resources and see how to demystify math in your classroom as well.

Please share your expertise in the comments below. Help other educators develop a sense of future belonging with your guidance. Tell us how you inspire students to see themselves as great mathematicians.



Airres. K. (2017). Math Class: The Importance of Asking the Next Question. Education Week. Retrieved from: https://fs24.formsite.com/edweek/images/Spotlight-Math-in-the-Classroom-Sponsored.pdf.
Califano, A. & Bosker, G. (2016). Can Math Crack Cancer’s Code? The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from: https://www.wsj.com/articles/can-math-crack-cancers-code-1474643275.
Hess, K. (2013). Cognitive Rigor and Depth of Knowledge. Retrieved from: http://www.karin-hess.com/cognitive-rigor-and-dok.
Nazaryan, A. (2014). The Cancer Equation: Mathematically Modelling the Cure. The Independent. Retrieved from: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/the-cancer-equation-mathematically-modelling-the-cure-9247126.html.
Urschel, J. (2017). How to Bring Math into Students’ Real Lives: Making the Case for Math’s Relevance. Education Week. Retrieved from: https://fs24.formsite.com/edweek/images/Spotlight-Math-in-the-Classroom-Sponsored.pdf.

Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan has over 20 years of classroom and university teaching experience. Her work at Renaissance focuses on formative assessment, exploring data in a growth mindset, and literacy development.
Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer
Jan Bryan has over 20 years of classroom and university teaching experience. Her work at Renaissance focuses on formative assessment, exploring data in a growth mindset, and literacy development.


  1. Rita Platt says:

    I love this! When kids see themselves in the texts they read they become aware of all that is possible for them.

  2. Dvawn Maza says:

    First of all, I try to let them see how much they use math every day! Many times students think math is too hard, but I tell them math never changes! If they can follow steps..then they can do math!!!

  3. Virginia Travis says:

    I try to come up with real world uses for math in our classroom. I incorporate math into reading lessons whenever possible.

  4. Ami Edwards says:

    I try to show them everyday uses of math as well.

  5. Lloyd says:

    It’s about letting the kids show you how they see a problem instead of forcing one method of solving on the entire class.

  6. Lisa Capon says:

    Love it! Makes math less scary

  7. David Keech says:

    A great mathematics teacher enables kids to see that mathematics gives us tools to solve the problems we encounter in our lives. A great mathematics teacher opens minds so that mathematics is not merely a subject, but a way of thinking. “The only time math comes after ANY subject is in the dictionary, (David Keech, WRPS Teacher)”

  8. P R says:

    Math is used in real life! This article shows that perfectly!

    Perhaps, teachers should use books to teach Math concepts by building a Math Literacy Library for their classroom?

  9. Sheila Shaffer says:

    If you teach math and have not subscribed to Marilyn Burns’ blog (Math Solutions), please consider it. She constantly used literature to start the conversations around math.

    While reading this, I certainly thought about the book The Math Curse. It follows a student through a school day – and math is everywhere! Also love The Number Devil and The Man Who Counted (based upon the math of Al-Khwarizmi mentioned above).

    • Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Thank you, Sheila. Math Curse is one of my favorites. I’m looking forward to reading the other two books you mentioned.

  10. Joanne Oliver says:

    I tell my students “It’s not that you don’t know anything, it’s that you know everything and you need to know how and when to apply it”. I want them to enjoy math and be excited about the lessons that I teach every time I walk in the room.

  11. carol roberts says:

    Very interesting read.

  12. Emily C says:

    Needs to be practical! My favorite poster: LIFE IS A STORY PROBLEM!!

  13. Melissa Robles says:

    Great idea! Makes math seem less scary!

  14. Jennifer Bunn says:

    I always try to connect what we are doing to real life and find math jobs that need to be done in our classroom like counting, charting, tallying, and solving problems for me. Math is a tool we all use to keep our classroom running smoothly. They also do a lot apps to extend their learning. The learning doesn’t stop when the lesson is over. They continue on as long as they’d like.

  15. Meredith Sanders says:

    After being inspired by this and demystify math, I created a bulletin board in our hall to “Spotlight our 5th grade Mathematicians”. I chose several students who work hard and persevere. I plan on putting them all in the spotlight before the end of the year.

    • Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer Jan Bryan, Ed.D., Vice President, National Education Officer says:

      Brilliant, Meredith. Simply brilliant. Please continue to find additional outlets to share your idea with teachers across the US (and beyond). If we want students to see themselves as mathematicians, they first must actually SEE themselves identified (publicly) as mathematicians. Well done.

  16. Narda Lugo says:

    Math us everywhere around us we just need to advertise it more! By advertise I mean sell it to the students and let them how it is used daily in our daily lives.

  17. Renee Graham says:

    I have a huge selection of math story books. Anytime I can point out a “math problem” in any story we read, I jump on it. My co-teacher allows reading and writing in math and I encourage math in reading. Love the movie Hidden Figures and Inigma. So inspirational!

  18. Donna Nichols says:

    Math must be relevant to the students! Great read!

  19. Jenny Thomas says:

    Students are consantly amazed that math touches everything.

  20. Christina says:

    Great read! Anytime I can use real life for math teaching and problem solving it is a win!

  21. Shannon Kovarik says:

    I love bring Math into the real world!!

  22. Dvawn Maza says:

    I love the book idea! I always relate to how we use it everyday!

  23. Jody Steinhaus says:

    I try to make math relevant to them. We discuss where we can find math in our surroundings–getting them to see patterns and make connections.

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