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Seven questions with...Professor David Clarke, Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne
David is a mathematics education researcher and has been both prolific and influential in the fields of comparative education and professional development. He is currently working on several projects, including an international analysis of the professional vocabulary of middle school mathematics teachers in nine countries.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
I remember arguing with my teacher over why a quarter is one over four. I was convinced it was two over two, because there are two quarters in one half (which itself contains two equal parts); I thought my teacher was a complete idiot! I was in Grade One, so I must have been about six.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
I remember being surprised at the notion that the maths curriculum could and does change – this feeling being replaced with a sense of inevitability as I saw cycles come and go, such as problem-solving, the idea of numeracy in context and utility, and more recently, critical thinking and enquiry-based learning. It does appear very cyclical when you zoom out a little. Given that fact, I’m surprised at how little of the canon of research seems to be known to students whom I am in contact with; there are some I consider incredibly useful and important, such as Skemp (1976 ), Erlwanger (1973) and Sfard (1998) .
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
I’d moved to teaching part-time, with one foot in the classroom and one in tertiary mathematics education. I came across a paper in which every single word rang true, that made me realise I’d probably mistaught female students for my whole career up until that point. It suggested that male teachers are often overly sympathetic to female students, tend to hand out cheap praise, and often leave female students mathematically helpless as a consequence – despite the best of intentions, I had definitely been differentiating between boys and girls in this way.
4. Do you practise mathematics differently in company?
It very much depends on the context. If there’s a shared purpose in common, collaborating can be enjoyable – but the competitive element can also be immensely stressful. Doing mathematics in private is almost always enjoyable for me (or I wouldn’t do it).
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
That’s an interesting question, and for me is encapsulated clearly in two people I know well: my brother (Professor Doug Clarke) and my college friend Charlie. Together, they make up the best teaching team I’ve ever seen in action. My brother is the best teacher I’ve ever encountered; he presents with transparent craft, and visible, careful strategy. Charlie (Lovitt) is the opposite: he’s charismatic, not at all organised, intuitive, and equally brilliant. They both praise each other highly and, more importantly, complement each other excellently.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
Well, that’s a silly question.
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
This joke can be told in every county in Australia:
An ageing Victorian moves to Queensland. This has the effect of raising the IQ in both states.
(Ed: this is affectionately known as the Will Rogers phenomenon )