A Conversation with Math Educator Marilyn Burns

I always look forward to emails from Marilyn Burns, because she often writes things like this:

“I'm back from school. My, I love being in the classroom with students―I'm working with 7th graders on probability.”

That’s how she opened her email to me the other day as we tried to schedule time to talk about this post, meant to mark the publication of the new 4th edition of her most comprehensive book About Teaching Mathematics.

How fitting, I thought. Almost 53 years after she started her teaching career as a 21-year-old in a 9th grade algebra classroom (“I felt like a student, not like a teacher. I was 21 years old. They were 14-year-olds.”), Marilyn still gets the same high after a productive day in the classroom. She’s not in the classroom everyday any more, but she continues to refine her craft, tossing out old ideas and looking for new ways to get kids “thinking, reasoning, and making sense” of numbers.

When we spoke on the phone a day later, I asked her about teaching probability. Is that fun to teach?

“What the kids love is that chance rules, not the teacher. They roll the dice, and I don’t know what’s going to come up. I think they’re fascinated by it.”

She had a game ready to get the 7th graders thinking about probability. It’s called “The Two-Dice Sum Game.” You can find it in the new edition of her book. Marilyn told me she had taught the game to second graders just a few weeks ago, more for giving them practice with basic addition than for thinking about probability. Here are rules for playing, taken from page 189 of About Teaching Mathematics, 4th Edition.

It’s typical for students first playing the game to put one counter on each number or all counters on their “favorite” number. But, over time, students notice that sums of 6, 7, and 8 come up more often than 2 and 12. As they play, their strategies evolve.

“A second-grader stacked his counters on his favorite number, 10. After playing a few times with this strategy, I asked him what he had learned. He answered, ‘I learned not to do that anymore!’”

“I was on Twitter the other day and just by chance I saw that someone had posted the exact same game. (The game was also in the previous versions of About Teaching Mathematics, with the 2nd Edition shown in the blog post.) The fact that somebody else was thinking the same way as I was just cheered me up.”

“One of the things I find is that planning lessons, even after all these years, is never easy. Often the night before I teach a new lesson I’m working all night long as I sleep. I’ve always had teaching nightmares, and they come up most often before I teach in the classroom.”

“We all as teachers want to do well for our students, and we all know how hard the job is. As a beginning teacher, I taught five periods of math a day, and I did the planning and teaching by myself. It was exhausting. That’s when I learned that it’s so important to find ways to collaborate and get support. The primary purpose of Math Solutions has been to help build a community of collaboration and support.”

Marilyn founded Math Solutions in 1984. The organization works with schools and teachers across the country and publishes more than 90 books and resources to help educators improve their instruction.

About Teaching Mathematics is one of those books. First published in 1992, the book has been updated about every eight years as Marilyn’s thinking has iterated and she’s learned more about what works. In many ways, each new edition has provided a snapshot of Marilyn’s approach to teaching throughout her career.

“At this point, I think that my teaching is better than it’s ever been. That doesn’t mean that it’s getting easier, but I now have so many more options to draw from.”

So what motivates her now?

“I’ve been surprised at how much I’m enjoying blogging and tweeting. People who know me say a year ago they wouldn’t have believed I’d be so enthusiastic about it.”

She quotes William Zinsser: Writing is a way to work yourself into a subject and make it your own.

“I’m pushing myself to blog more, using my writing for pushing my thinking and sharing with teachers. I’m finding it to be surprisingly invigorating and beneficial.”

Marilyn posts regularly on her Marilyn Burns Math Blog, and you can follow her on Twitter at @mburnsmath.