Teaching Math as Narrative Drama

By Katherine Mangan

Waco, Tex.

Teaching Math as Narrative Drama 1

Matt Nager for The Chronicle

Edward Burger at Baylor U.

When Edward B. Burger presents a math challenge to his class at Baylor University, he paces the aisles and pairs students together. "I want to hear chattering," he says. Before long, students are laughing and shouting out answers. He dashes to the chalkboard to scribble them down, creating long rows of numbers topped with running stick figures.

Mr. Burger, 46, who is visiting from Williams College, keeps up a rapid-fire banter with his students, whom he calls by name.

He is here this semester as a recipient of Baylor’s annual Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching, which came with $215,000 in cash and $35,000 for Williams’s math department.

The 12-member committee that culled more than 100 nominations from around the country was impressed with his string of teaching awards, his multimedia textbooks and videos for secondary schools, and his televised analysis of the math behind the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Mr. Burger was younger than the students he’s teaching at Baylor when he discovered how much fun teaching math could be. Armed with a lesson plan and a conviction that he could cut through his classmates’ collective fog, he asked his high-school teacher if she’d step aside and let him teach two classes.

"She agreed, and at the age of 17, I stood up in front of a precalculus class of about 40 students who looked at me like I was the biggest nerd in the world," says Mr. Burger.

He began teaching night classes at Austin Community College at age 22, while he was working on his doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin. "What I was trying to do was to take really complex, intricate, abstract ideas of mathematics and make them come to life for these students," he says. He began encouraging students to be creative and take risks, and even bases a portion of their grades on "the quality of their failure."

He judges that quality, he says, "by the size of the risk they’ve taken and the amount of insight they have generated from their mistakes."

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