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Irene is Associate Professor of Mathematics Education at the School of Education and Lifelong Learning of the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK. She completed her undergraduate (BSc in Mathematics) and postgraduate (MSc and PhD in Mathematics Education) studies at the Mathematics department of the University of Athens, Greece. She worked for several years as a mathematics teacher and as a research/development officer in Greece before joining academia in the UK. Irene is a member of the RME group at UEA and the leader of MathTASK, a collaborative research and development programme in the UK, Brazil and Greece on mathematics teachers’ pedagogical and mathematical discourses.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
I remember myself always playing with numbers. As a primary school kid, I had fun with mental calculations at the local shop competing with the greengrocer’s long additions on a brown piece of paper full of numbers. Their total was very often slightly above the right amount, was it on purpose? Challenging the greengrocer’s amount was so amusing and it made my nan proud of me. It took me years to realise the variation in my mental calculation techniques: rounding, adding up to ten, double if the numbers are close – then fix, adding tens and units together … techniques always adapted to the numbers I was dealing with.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
I have been in education since I joined infant school! I have seen myself as a student, undergraduate mathematician (as we used to call ourselves at university), tutor, schoolteacher (in state and private schools), curriculum developer, master’s and PhD student, educational researcher and higher education lecturer. I also had the opportunity to learn about different educational contexts when I moved from Greece to the UK and then when I visited other places, such as Brazil, Tunisia or Tasmania.
I have learnt so far that education, and especially mathematics education, changes nonstop. Changes in education reflect changes in society and impact such changes as well.
I grew up in an environment where the common narrative was that mathematics is for a few very special people. Some people still believe it, however public perception about mathematical ability is changing. We know from neuroscience, for example, that we are born with number sense and most of us can develop mathematical skills at least at school level.
Gender differences is another example. My primary school teacher used to say that mathematics is for boys, while literature is more appropriate for girls. I was for many years the weird girl in my class. We have no evidence that justifies such gender differences in mathematical ability. We also know that very often such differences are rooted in public views. These public views are changing with more and more visibility of females in STEM success stories in media and educational programmes.
Another example, in which mathematics education has changed is the availability and use of digital technology. I grew up in the analogue world of paper and pencil, compass, and ruler. Problem-solving meant a lot of searching in textbooks and encyclopaedias, scribbles, crumpled papers, and experimentation with physical objects. Problem-solving now starts with online searching and involves experimentation with digital applications – such as dynamic geometry software – and modelling. Mathematics in school may still follow rules based on the analogue world, such as examination questions or memorising rules without meaning. It might be better to think about future mathematics education that promotes connection and critical evaluation of information instead of the accumulation of such information.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
Many years ago, I was the mathematics teacher of a Year 12 class with mixed ability students. I was new in the school and the good students were eager to impress me with polished and precise questions. Other students were not so engaged. There was one backbencher in the class though who contributed occasionally with questions and comments that were very interesting but marginally relevant to the lesson of the day; something like “What will happen if the triangle is not right” while we were dealing with Pythagoras. I asked my colleagues about her; they classified her as having a low to middle ability in mathematics. However, her intriguing comments had a lot of substance, and I could not resist the challenges she was posing to me with her questions.
To make a long story short, this student was indeed behind with the mathematical content of the previous years; no sense of solving quadratic equations, for example. She had a very good sense of shapes in geometry though. Our conversations and the attention in the class changed her relationship with mathematics and by the end of the year she had caught up with the content of the previous years and she was at the top of the class. She studied mathematics and she is now a successful mathematics teacher.
Her amazing – life changing – story always reminds me that unlocking this kind of potential is an essential part of a teacher’s role. It is this part of the role that should make teachers proud of what they are doing!
4. Do you practise mathematics differently in company?
Company makes a difference, indeed. I like getting a sense of a mathematical problem myself before starting to work with others. Working with others opens possibilities that I would not have thought of before. However, it might be distracting as well, especially when I am on a different pathway – for example, when I follow a different routine, or I approach a problem from a different perspective. In practice, the mathematical discourse of the group really matters; the group may engage with the same or complementary discourses or with discourses in conflict.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
A brilliant mathematics teacher is made, I say with confidence!
Some innate skills may flourish or stay dormant in the teaching profession, but this depends on teacher preparation and the school environment. So, I would not put so much attention on innate skills. I would rather prioritise how teachers are prepared and build their identity.
About the latter, we need also to consider how society sees the teaching profession. Societies that are characterised by an appreciation of education and teaching, and which reflect this appreciation in their educational policy, have a stronger body of teachers and better student outcomes.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
Mathematicians are like all other people and can have fun as all other people can. They may like arts and literature; they may socialise well, and they may have healthy relationships with other humans; exactly as other people do!
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
Oh yes, several! One that works with all ages:
“What did zero say to eight?
-- Nice belt, mate!”
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