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A Lifetime of Mathematical Challenges: The Story of MAA Member John Mason

“Try to do for students only what they cannot yet do for themselves,” says Mathematical Association of America (MAA) member, professor emeritus of the Open University, and avid canoeist John Mason. Though he’s retired from his original position teaching mathematics and mathematics education, Mason and his wife Anne Watson, the first mathematics education professor at Oxford University, started their own foundation known as PMTheta, or Promoting Mathematical Thinking, to host workshops for teachers on mathematical pedagogy. When he’s not offering workshops for educators, Mason enjoys his favorite pastime: math. Yes, after 60 years of mathematics, he still can’t resist the challenge that making sense of mathematical phenomena offers.

Mason’s journey started in high school with the Society of Actuaries mathematics competition. As the youngest to place in the top 20, he was invited to a workshop led by H. S. M. Coxeter at the University of Toronto. There he met fellow enthusiasts, some of whom he met again as an undergraduate. A close friendship developed with one in particular, and 60 years later, the friendship remains just as strong. When they meet, as they now do regularly online despite being on different continents, they discuss mathematics and philosophy, showing that mathematics can be more than just a series of competitions or a field of study, but a community.

Following the competition, Mason continued posing questions as an undergraduate and master’s student at the University of Toronto, and then as a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He joined the Open University in England in 1970 to write distance-taught courses in mathematics and mathematics education where he remained for 40 years. Within the first year of the program, the university doubled the number of students enrolled in mathematics in the country. Their success is derived from their focus on teaching: developing pedagogy using non-traditional methods such as radio, television, audiotapes, and now the internet, to make mathematics more inclusive throughout the United Kingdom. Their original tutorials and summer school were archetypal flipped classrooms, for students came together only after they had studied material for themselves. Currently, the Open University is the largest university in the United Kingdom for undergraduate education.

In addition to incorporating new methods of teaching, Mason also offered in-person workshops that challenged his students with tasks calling for exploration and investigation, inspired by what he found happening in primary schools and the Association of Teachers of Mathematics. One of Mason’s key aims as a professor is to teach his students how to learn on their own and in groups, and to use critical thinking skills. “The next step comes from inside you.” He elaborates, “students have instincts and automatisms, but also access to natural powers, just as professors do.” However, it is all too easy to ask leading questions that unconsciously guide students to answers. As a result, this can potentially inhibit the development of their own natural powers.

Every professor aims to help their students; however, Mason noted that this instinct can sometimes prevent critical learning. The key, he says, is to find a balance between caring for students and caring for the integrity of mathematics, between helping students and hindering their learning by offering solutions too quickly. “Try to do for students only what they cannot yet do for themselves,” says Mason. Though now retired, this motto serves as a foundation for PMTheta’s mission.

 "Try to do for students only what they cannot yet do for themselves."

John Mason

Learning, in all capacities, has been a lifelong undertaking. Mason has spent much of his career learning about the human psyche in application to education, particularly the role of attention and imagination in both teaching and learning. Mason will never cease when it comes to posing and trying to comprehend mathematical phenomena, and he hopes that both the teachers he works with and their students won’t either. The MAA strives to encourage students to learn and challenge themselves, and members like John Mason are the reason we continue to succeed.