Sunday, October 28, 2012

Patrick Honner of MrHonner

Math-frolic Interview #6

"What I enjoy the most about mathematics is the moment when a solution, a relationship, or a structure becomes evident.  It's a powerful feeling when you conquer a challenge, or see and understand the real essence of something for the first time." --Patrick Honner

Patrick Honner is an award-winning New York state secondary math teacher who is quite active on the Web.
He blogs at and has given a TedxTalk as well, in addition to also being a contributor to the NY Times Learning Network (and is @MrHonner on Twitter).
He kindly answered my inquiries as follows:
1) How did your interest in mathematics originally come about, and when did you realize you wanted to pursue math professionally?

I've always enjoyed math.  I recall participating in math contests in elementary school, and I consistently had good math teachers through junior high and high school.  When I started college I wasn't sure what I was going to do, but I knew I would keep taking math classes.  I never really did figure out what I was going to do, so I just kept taking math classes and moved on to graduate school.

2) What are your favorite aspects of mathematics that you most like studying/reading about?

What I enjoy the most about mathematics is the moment when a solution, a relationship, or a structure becomes evident.  It's a powerful feeling when you conquer a challenge, or see and understand the real essence of something for the first time.   I still regularly experience that feeling now, as I learn new mathematics, or learn to see old mathematics in new ways.  It's part of what makes teaching math so wonderful.

3) How do you go about selecting the topics you blog about? And what do you think is the strongest 'draw' for your blog, out of so many 'math education' blogs?

 I write about my mathematical experiences, which range from the mundane--like over-thinking prices in the supermarket--to the academic--like finding novel proofs and derivations of facts and theorems.  Mathematics plays a substantial role in how I understand and engage with the world, so it's always present in my mind.
I think the depth and variety of my experiences, both in mathematics and in teaching, give me a unique perspective in this field.  And I think the way I look to celebrate and appreciate math--through compelling questions, interesting stories, and beautiful images--makes math accessible and enjoyable in a novel way for some readers.
4) A controversial editorial ran in the NY Times awhile back questioning whether algebra should be a required course for ALL high school graduates. Many responses appeared on the Web to that piece, and eventually YOU had a full response in the Times itself. Can you tell any backstory to that (or post-story for that matter)? Did you approach the Times about doing a reply, or did someone there approach you specifically for a response? And are you pleased with the overall discussion the episode generated?

My initial reaction to the editorial in question was to notice, as others did, that Andrew Hacker didn't really seem to understand what algebra is.  After all, he suggested that we replace algebra with, well, algebra.
I have been contributing math content (like lessons, activities, and quiz questions) to the New York Times Learning Network for several years, and I thought the controversy surrounding "Is Algebra Necessary?" created a perfect opportunity to demonstrate to students and teachers how the tools and techniques of algebra can be used to explore what anyone can find in the Times.
 The response to the piece was great.  Despite being up for less than a month, "N Ways to Apply Algebra with the New York Times" was one of the Learning Network's top-viewed posts of the past year.  And lots of teachers and students responded with comments.

5) You also took on the "establishment" with a series of blog posts about flaws in a NY state math examination… has anything substantive resulted from those critiques?
And you're actively involved in various efforts to improve secondary math education in the U.S. where there seems (to me, as an education outsider) to be a lot of disagreement/controversy over how best to proceed. How well do you think matters are proceeding, and are you optimistic that math education, nationwide, will be much improved for future generations, or will there always be unresolved controversy over methods?

Nothing substantive has resulted from my critiques of math problems on New York state exams, nor do I expect anything to happen.  I'm simply trying to raise the point that the quality and validity of these standardized exams are rarely, if ever, called into question.  If the tests aren't good, how can they possibly determine if teachers should keep their jobs or schools should remain open?
Public education will always be, in part, a political issue, and thus will always be subject to the controversies (both real and manufactured) that politics brings to everything it touches.  I think the best avenue for improving math education is a sustained focus on elevating the profession of teaching: more support for teachers at the ground level; more opportunities for growth in content-knowledge and pedagogy; and real opportunities for teachers to collaborate, share, and actively shape the profession itself.
I have been very fortunate to be a part of Math for America, an organization that does all of this in the most supportive, least restrictive way imaginable. It has made a huge difference in my career, and in the careers of many others.

6) What are some of your favorite math books to read for enjoyment, and how about math books you'd especially recommend to lay people with some math interest?

I enjoy doing math more than reading it.  I greatly enjoy solving problems, creating new problems to solve, or creating new ways to think about mathematical ideas.  In terms of books about math for lay people, I'm not sure anyone does it better than Steven Strogatz.  His "The Calculus of Friendship" and "The Joy of X" are both wonderful.  John Allen Paulos has also written several excellent, accessible books that I've enjoyed, like "A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market".

7) What online math resources do you find especially useful in the classroom? And do you use your blog or any social media in your classroom as well?

Alexander Bogolmony's Cut the Knot is one of the best math websites around for both teaching and learning.  He has a unique perspective on math and teaching, and he has produced many wonderful interactive mathematical explorations that I and my students enjoy.  I am a huge fan of Geogebra, and I find myself using Desmos more and more.
I try to use my website as a bridge between the classroom and the greater world of mathematics for my students, a place for us to continue our conversation and share new experiences.  I have students create blogs as part of projects, and have experimented with other social media technologies as teaching and learning tools as well.

8) Any parting words, not covered above, you'd want to pass along to a math-oriented audience?
Participation in the digital mathematics and math education communities has profoundly impacted me, both personally and professionally.  Thanks to everyone out there who reads, writes, tweets, and posts; this is truly a remarkable community to be a part of!
-- Thanks Patrick for participating here, and even more-so for your active engagement in the wider field of math education. As they say, 'keep fighting the good fight!'

[...and if readers have anyone you would particularly like to see interviewed here let me know.]

1 comment:

Patrick Honner said...

Thanks again, Shecky. It was fun responding to your thoughtful questions, and I'm really enjoying this series! Looking forward to more interviews.