Interview with Dr Keith Devlin: Helping children to learn mathematics and find their passion

2012-03-19 15:48 by Johan Ranstam
Dr Keith Devlin, interview for Number Bonds by Thinkout (image from

Dr Keith Devlin

Not just a celebrity as The Math Guy on the National Public Radio in the US, Dr. Keith Devlin is also the founder of the H-Star Institute at  the Stanford University. And, as if that wasn’t enough, he’s published more than 30 books on mathematics (e.g. The Language of Mathematics: Making the Invisible Visible and the Mathematics Education for a New Era: Video Games as a Medium for Learning) and is a columnist at the Huffington Post.

The dedicated bicycler, blogger and numerously awarded mathematician shares the view of learning with Thinkout’s founder, Rolf Skoglund. Dr. Devlin even gave his support in the book Thinkout produced in the working with Number Bonds by Thinkout.

We managed to get a couple of precious moments of this sharp mind’s time. Of course, we wanted to pick his brains on learning math and specifically children learning math, since it’s a common interest to Dr. Devlin and us at Thinkout.

What role has mathematics played in your life?

“Mathematics has been the main focus of my life since I was sixteen. That was the age when I discovered that what I had previously disjoint collection of techniques to solve problems was a cohesive whole that humans had cumulatively developed over thousands of years to do things in the world.”

Why is mathematics important to you?

“Doing mathematics satisfies me on several levels. It provides constant intellectual challenges, its inner beauty gives me aesthetic pleasure, and it enables me to make a good living traveling around the world and working with some of the smartest people on the planet!”

Do you think parents should encourage their children to learn mathematics? And if so, why and how?

“I think parents should encourage and support their children to do whatever interests them. The main consideration for any child is to find something you are passionate about, and then pursue it.  In my case, that turned out to be mathematics, but it won’t work for everyone. Of course, besides pursing a passion, we can all gain satisfaction from knowing a little about things other people do, and you need some understanding to do that. Any person who does not know enough about mathematics to gain enjoyment from the work mathematicians do is missing something in their lives. I cannot play a musical instrument well, but I know enough about music to enjoy it!”

You’ve been an appreciated and successful teacher in mathematics for many years. In your opinion, what are the possibilities and the role of digital tools in the learning situation?

“Digital tools provide teachers with tools they have never had before, and they can make a huge difference. They will never replace a good human teacher. But they can make that teacher better! It’s like medicine. If I am sick, I want to visit a real doctor. But I expect that doctor to use the latest technologies!”

Huge thanks to Dr. Keith Devlin for your time!