By Jan Bryan, EdD, Vice President, National Education Officer
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.
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.
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).
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)
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?
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?
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 has more than 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.