As you probably know, John Urschel is both a professional mathematician (at MIT, no less) and a recently retired professional football player (in the NFL, of course — recently retired from the Baltimore Ravens). What a combination! A few days ago he published a piece in the New York Times that is well worth reading.

Here are three excerpts, followed by a couple of comments:

Football coaches can be easy to caricature: all that intensity, all those pep talks, all those promises to build character. I certainly don’t romanticize them. I don’t believe that they make better young men, just better football players.

But I wish math teachers were more like football coaches.

…

No one expects a math teacher to tell a talented student that he or she could become the next John von Neumann. (No one expects math teachers to tell students about von Neumann — perhaps the greatest mathematician of the 20th century — at all.) And no one expects math teachers to talk with the kind of fire, or to demand the kind of commitment and accountability, that football coaches do. But I wish they did.

…

I had no desire to spend my life doing exercises out of a textbook, which is what I assumed mathematicians did — if I even thought about what they did.

So, to give a little more context: Urschel went to a very academically oriented public high school in upstate New York (maybe a bit like Weston?), wanted to play pro football, went to Penn State, played for the Ravens, and is now getting his PhD in math at MIT. Quite a combination! My main comment concerns what math teachers do and what mathematicians do. Math teachers (obviously) teach math… but we’re not professional mathematicians, as I often remind my classes. We are both less and more. * Less* in the sense that we rarely do original research and rarely prove new and interesting theorems (two of the things that most pro mathematicians do).

*in the sense that we strive to reach all students — even those who hate math and think it’s impossible — and we relate mathematics clearly to other disciplines. I’ve known too many mathematicians who were great at doing math but completely incompetent at teaching it to middle- or high-school students. Conversely, most math teachers couldn’t do professional mathematics, nor would we want to.*

__More__So go ahead and read the article. It’s short. Then you’ll decide whether Urschel is correct. I think he is.

Categories: Math, Teaching & Learning