In this monthly column, we speak with a notable member of the mathematics education community about their work and their perspectives on the teaching and learning of mathematics. This month, we had the pleasure of speaking with Max Ray-Riek, who will be presenting at this year’s Saskatchewan Understands Mathematics (SUM) Conference in Saskatoon.
Max Ray-Riek works at The Math Forum at NCTM and is the author of the book Powerful Problem Solving. He is a former secondary mathematics teacher who has presented at regional and national conferences on fostering problem solving and communication and valuing student thinking.
I would like to start off by asking you a bit about your background and your interest in mathematics. Was it a subject that you always enjoyed, or did something – or someone – hook you along the way? What drew you to teaching secondary mathematics rather than, say, research in mathematics?
“There’s so much being figured out right now about how math can be taught as a dynamic, engaging subject where everyone has unique ideas that matter… One of the most exciting problems facing the world today is how to teach math in a way that builds on students sharing their ideas.”
I knew I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember – I was one of those kids who played school with my stuffed animals and pretended I was teaching all the time. My mom taught pre-school and kindergarten, and when I was old enough to read chapter books I devoured books that told teaching stories, like You Can’t Say You Can’t Play
or Wally’s Stories
by Vivian Gussin Paley. But I didn’t think I wanted to be a math
teacher until my sophomore year of college (not that my decision to become a math teacher surprised any of my own math teachers, like Lois Burke, @lbburke
on Twitter – she was my Algebra II teacher and now a cherished colleague!).
I had started off as a discouraged math student, fearing long packets of arithmetic problems that I was neither fast nor accurate with. I was lucky enough to have a 5th grade teacher, Ms. Allen, recognize that I enjoyed puzzles, problem solving, and thinking outside the box, and she invited me to try out some Math Olympiad problems. Even though I couldn’t solve a single one on my first try, she invited me to share the approach I’d used to start thinking about one of the problems, and that was when I realized that I could have math ideas that mattered to other people. From then on I was interested in math, and enjoyed doing math and talking about math thinking with other people. When I got to college, I realized that this was actually one of the most exciting areas to teach in, because there’s so much being figured out right now about how math can be taught as a dynamic, engaging subject where everyone has unique math ideas that matter. Reading math education research by people like Alan Schoenfeld, Jo Boaler, Ana Sfard, Paul Cobb, Jean Lave, and others helped me see that one of the most exciting problems facing the world today is how to teach math in a way that builds on students sharing their ideas.