Ask a math teacher or math professional to define what they think makes a great mathematician, and you’ll likely get quite a few different answers, and perhaps, a good debate!
Math educator Ben Orlin (@benorlin), based in Birmingham, England, has his own ideas. Known for his creative, humorous math illustrations published on his blog (Math With Bad Drawings), and at mainstream news outlets like Vox, Los Angeles Times, and The Atlantic, Orlin has created a series of illustrations outlining the differences between being a good mathematician and being a GREAT mathematician.
The illustrations are funny. He opts for simple stick figures as characters and admits on his blog that he “can’t draw.” But more than that, he creates compelling comparisons between being average and being exceptional in math are worthy of discussion and sharing with students — particularly classrooms using problem-based, inquiry math (where critical thinking overrules memorizing formulas).
As we look back at the past year, we find quite a few instances where we, at Education Insider, have featured blog posts about many of the things Orlin points to as being characteristics of great mathematicians. Indeed, we’ve even featured former IMP® math students who share how the rigorous, creative, problem-solving math they learned in IMP helped them to become the successful business professionals they are today! (The Benefits of Bringing Math Professionals Into the Classroom). And we’ve featured courageous math teachers who work very hard to help their students become great in math, and to push past what they thought were limitations in their abilities. (Teri Owens: Using Technology to Bust The Ghosts of Traditional Math Curriculum)
Rock star mathematician, Jo Boaler (@joboaler), would agree with Orin’s observations as well. In an interview with us this past year, Boaler (who’s book, What’s Math Got To Do With It?, was a best-seller and inspired teachers to move beyond traditional math), explained the importance of helping students to become great in math:
“Real mathematics is about inquiry, communication, connections, and visual ideas. We don’t need students to calculate quickly in math. We need students who can ask good questions, map out pathways, reason about complex solutions, set up models, and communicate in different forms… This broad, multidimensional mathematics is the math that engages many more learners and puts them on a pathway to life-long success.“
A few of our favorite items on Orison’s illustrated list include:
— A GOOD mathematician wants to know how. A GREAT mathematician wants to know why.
— A GOOD mathematician can make arguments intuitive or rigorous. A GREAT mathematician can make an argument intuitive and rigorous.
— A GOOD mathematician answers questions. A GREAT mathematician questions answers.
— A GOOD mathematician solves problems by making them concrete. A GREAT mathematician solves problems by making them abstract.
— A GOOD mathematician inventories what they know. A GREAT mathematician inventories what they don’t know.
Check out the complete list of comparisons below. Follow Orlin’s epic, math adventures on his blog and on Twitter at #mathwithbadhashtags. And do consider sharing these talking points with math students — great food for thought!
Good Mathematician vs. Great Mathematician
by Ben Orlin
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