Good Mathematicians and Great Mathematicians

What does it mean to be great at maths?

Last school year I walked the hallways, looking at research projects that young mathematicians in my building created. There were lots of accurate facts, pictures of historically famous mathematicians, and cited sources. But I noticed a problematic trend: A majority of the mathematicians posted on the walls were white men of the past. Don’t get me wrong, these men and their accomplishments can be celebrated! But there wasn’t enough diversity or new faces/voices in the mix…

So this year when I received my new rosters for my middle school math classes, I was anxious for the opportunity to expose this same group of learners to a more diverse list of mathematicians. It was beyond exciting to see Jo Boaler‘s “What does it mean to be great at maths?” activity published to the Youcubed resources, just in time to begin the school year. What a resource!

On the second day of school, we learned 3 ideas about mathematical thinking, presented in Boaler’s resources with cartoons from Math with Bad Drawings:

  1. Mathematical thinking is not about speed.
  2. Mathematical thinking is about communicating and reasoning.
  3. Mathematical thinking is not about memorizing methods.

Each cartoon was accompanied by an inspirational mathematician… and those mathematicians looked like the students sitting in my classroom, with pictures in vibrant colors and biographies that expanded on the three ideas listed above. I also shared my own experiences about wanting to be the fastest at math and my mad memorization skills as a student, until I was exposed to much deeper learning in my Methods of Teaching Mathematics courses in college.

Good Mathematicians and Great Mathematicians

To finish the lesson I assigned students the task of creating a cartoon, which was again taken from Boaler’s resource. My artists could be inspired by the mathematicians and their stories, or the sample cartoons that we talked through during class. But I encouraged these learners to get creative and think about their experiences in learning in math classes!

Some of the final products were nearly duplicates of the examples shared in class. Others offered a slight twist. (I’m just grateful that maybe they found that one of the cartoons connected with their experiences and that they wanted to recreate the idea… or just get the assignment done… Who knows?)

But the ones that stuck out to me were more original. Here are some of those pieces of art, from the brains of middle schoolers, with their permission:

good mathematician wants to know how. A great mathematician wants to know why.

Example 1

A good mathematician can be good in school math. A great mathematician uses math everywhere.

Example 2

A good mathematician can solve the problem. A great mathematician can find more than one way to solve it.

Example 3

A good mathematician knows what the teacher is saying. A great mathematician knows but still makes mistakes or asks questions.

Example 4

A good mathematician gets the answer to an equation. A great mathematician gets the answer to an equation and shares their knowledge and work with others.

Example 5

A good mathematician finishes their tests. A great mathematician looks over their work after finishing a test.

Example 6

A good mathematician never makes mistakes. A great mathematician learns from their mistakes.

Example 7

The growth mindset and reflections in some of these projects were evident, and I could relate to most of them wearing my teacher hat, as well as my learner hat. I was truly impressed by the artwork and ideas presented by these young mathematicians, and I can’t wait to see each of them grow and learn this school year hopefully toward a “great mathematician” status!


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