Stereotypes of Mathematicians

I was reading on the NCETM website about films that have mathematicians as main characters. Four films are mentioned:

  1. A Beautiful Mind
  2. Pi
  3. Good Will Hunting
  4. Enigma

One commentator says that these films contribute to stereotypes about maths since they are all about men, men who are unsociable, and that they are uncomfortable in their roles. Films are not helping maths break away from a “nerdy” stereotype.

Then another commentator goes on to lambaste this idea by saying:

the first three films are about mental illness, not mathematics: the characters happen to be mathematicians, their profession is incidental to the drama that arises from their malfunctioning brain chemistry. The negative, frightening “nutter” stereotype they perpetrate is far more reprehensible, and dangerous, than any “nerd” stereotype.”

The article ends by asking what schools are doing to counteract these stereotypes. For our part, we have named ten of our classrooms after mathematicians. Nine are men and one is a woman: Sophie Germain. They are not all dysfunctional; though Georg Cantor did go insane.

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My classroom is named after Paul Erdös but I have yet to capitalise on this with my students. There are so many good stories about Uncle Paul and his love of maths. He was a bit nutty though, so I am not sure he refutes any stereotypes. The truth is, a lot of mathematicians are men and a lot of them are a little odd. (I say this as a proud nerd.) I think this is especially true among academics, and perhaps less so among mathematicians in industry.

Does your school do anything to counter stereotypes of mathematicians?

Circle Theorems Choice Board (A Differentiated Lesson)

I had just two 80-minute lessons and their homeworks to help my students learn about the circle theorems. So I put together this choice board for them (here’s a file for you). I had a (not very great) powerpoint with an overview of the circle theorems that they would use as a resource; you could also use a text-based resource or a video.

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I told students about the first theorem, then said they were going to learn about the rest of them. They had to choose a line of three items to demonstrate their learning, horizontally, vertically, or diagonally. They could work individually or in a pair.

It seems that my students preferred the diagonal line from bottom left to top right, since many pairs picked those three items.

The treasure hunt is an activity in the pod outside my classroom with questions and answers scattered around that they have to find and follow in order. (It’s a paid-for item that my school has purchased from Mathsloops.)

The sorting cards are a collection of diagrams that need to be sorted according to which circle theorem applies, then the missing angles calculated. (Embarrassingly I can longer find the file from which I made them years ago. Here’s a card sorting activity I found online that’s a bit different but would work well here.)

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I had two great posters made by students and even had one short story. Two groups made games and one student tried a comic. Read the short story below!

The Life of a Circle

Once upon a time, in a land far away (called England) there lived a circle. This circle’s name was Kevin, his life was endless (pun intended) but his life was not as exciting as he wanted it to be. One day, when Kevin was rolling along the road he didn’t realize that there was a slope in his way. He started rolling down the hill very fast and couldn’t stop himself. “CRASH!!!” When Kevin looked up after recovering from his dizziness, he was amazed by the figure standing in front of him. He looked up to find that a beautiful tangent had stopped him from crashing into the brick wall just meters away from them. He finally spoke, asking her who she was. She replied kindly and softly saying, “My name is Tangentina Tangent, how about you?” Quickly, Kevin pulled himself together and gathered the words to tell her that his name was Kevin Circle and thanked her for saving his life. They both looked down nervously and realized that they had met at a 90° angle. Tangentine said, “You know, it’s a well known fact that circles and tangents become the very best of friends because they meet at a 90° angle. I think that this could be the start of a very very very long and wonderful friendship.” Kevin said, “Tangentina, I am very pleased to meet you but, you have to get your facts straight, it’s tangents and radii not circles. But yes, I am excited a the thought of having a new friend.” Tangentina smiled and took Kevin’s hand and they rolled and bounced off into the sunset.


(They live happily ever after)

I’m contributing this post to #made4math, a way for maths teachers to share projects in the classroom. It’s hosted by the blog Teaching Statistics.

Do you have a differentiation activity you like?

Famous Mathematicians Choice Board (Differentiation Idea)

A few years ago I made a project that I used with my year 7 (eleven year old) students. I introduced it by talking for about two minutes about Blaise Pascal, a mathematician I find personally interesting.

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Then I told my students they were going to choose a mathematician to learn about and it would be their choice how to show their learning. There are nine options for them to produce, and they needed to do three of them which form a vertical, horizontal, or diagonal line from the choice board. (Here is the choice board file.)

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I arranged the nine items so that the lines require some diversity of products. The two times I have used this project my students have responded very positively to the choices. The second time I did it, after they had made their three items, I made larger groups of those who had chosen the same mathematicians to put together a display board of their work. It’s a bonus for me that this project makes for a lot of good display work if you need/want to change your classroom displays.

I think if I did this project again, I might allow more choice on the person as well, perhaps by adding the option, “Choose another mathematician of your choice and have it approved by Mrs A”.

I am posting about this today because I was reading Mr Bigger’s post about differentiation using choice boards. It also makes me think that I should try to use a choice board for a more “meaty” mathematical topic. Has anyone done this before and have an example to share?