Malcolm Swan – a few memories about my PhD supervisor

3 min read

Malcolm was a kind-hearted supervisor. His real passion was designing mathematical tasks. I was lucky enough to become his PhD student at the Shell Centre in the University of Nottingham in 2010. The Shell Centre provided me with funding to evaluate the impact of the Bowland Professional Development materials on secondary mathematics teachers’ beliefs and practices. The materials were designed by Malcolm based on his years of experience designing tasks and classroom materials. They are superb.

Malcolm and I found that we had a spare couple of days in San Francisco in 2012, having been working with Alan Schoenfeld at UC Berkeley. We had a great time, Malcolm was always engaging and gentle company. Here we are fooling around on a cable car.

What I could never really figure out is how Malcolm could understand how students and teachers would think and act when working on the activities he designed. But he seemed to know. I know he did lots of careful observation and would refine his designs as a result. But he had something extra, some extra bit of magical imagination. It was like that of any creative, an artist, poet or writer, he had an imagined world, a very sophisticated one. When you engage with a Malcolm task you are entering his world. It is a wonderful world.

You don’t just venture alone into Malcolm’s world, he entices you to go as a group. His tasks are wonderfully infectious. Even before I met him I was using the Improving Learning in Mathematics (Standards Units) materials with low-attaining learners who had lost a lot of confidence in mathematics. They couldn’t help but argue and think together. I remember smiling at two or three year 10 girls, who initially refused to suffer the indignity of doing maths while in detention, but within a short time they were furiously debating the meaning of negative numbers and operations. A testament to the power of Malcolm’s task design.

We didn’t always agree during my time as a student. Sometimes it could be downright frustrating. Malcolm had his ideas and I had mine. But we got through. Malcolm was always patient. We realised we were never going to agree on how teachers’ beliefs worked and how they influenced what teachers did in the classroom. But through this it made me make sure I knew my stuff. It made me a better academic.

It was only in the last year or so, while training new mathematics teachers, that I really realised what a profound influence Malcolm had on my thinking about mathematics education. I stress to trainees the importance of tasks in assessment. That is real assessment, diagnostic assessment. Using tasks so you can see and understand the deep concepts and processes that learners struggle with or master. None of your gap filling rubbish.

Malcolm will be missed. Gone way too soon. But in my practice as a teacher educator and researcher Malcolm is with me always. Farewell Malcolm, I’m sure there’s a corner of heaven really busy with a card sort of yours right now.

One of my favourites from the Standards Units or Improving Learning in Mathematics

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