Ed Burger, Southwestern University President: Illuminating Leadership Through The Prism of Mathematical Failure

Everyday is Monday…My course(Effective Thinking Through Creative Puzzle Solving) is the Seinfeld of the curriculum…it’s about nothing and tries to be everything.


I have always been attracted to people whose ideas are spherical, moving in flow in any direction, to manifest passionate and everlasting change.

Ed Burger is one of those people.

Some of you might not know Ed Burger, but his credentials in mathematics, teaching, and writing are long and illustrious. Not going to bother to rewrite them…

This past Wednesday, I flew to Boston to speak at the Fourth Annual Nancy Davis Welch Memorial Professional Development Dinner. I was invited by my friend Sue Looney to speak to the guests about ideas that represented Nancy and would help remind us all to the spirit of teaching/mathematics — connection, gratitude, and kindness.

I decided to wrap all of these up in an idea which has dominated my thinking for the last few months — failure.

When I was casually Googling “failure”, I came across Ed Burger. While Ed and I have never met, we have had email/social media contact for over 5 years. It’s hard to trace the breadcrumbs, but it does go back to when I was building The Right Angle(which would eventually be destroyed by a fire…)

I emailed Ed to share with him my ideas of failure. He emailed me back almost immediately. He took noted interest in my ideas and was excited to see my TEDx Talk: Your Heart is Your Identity. Naturally, I was deeply warmed by his quick response and enthusiasm. I have gotten less/none by people with far less responsibilities and stature.

He also sent me a video that has added much needed color and texture to how I see mathematical failure. In the video, are the two quotes you see at the top of this article. Just these two, when mixed together, create an amalgam of boundless creativity — learning and working all the time to push the needle of what is possible.

Watching Ed’s video confirmed to me that math education is perhaps working it backwards — it is trying to mine/extract mathematical thinking from curriculum(which has never changed in terms of anything bold).

How about what kind of mathematical thinking/effective thinking do we value — AND THEN create a mathematical curriculum around that. Pretty sure many of the topics that we spend an inordinate amount of time on — fractions, decimals, trigonometry — wouldn’t make the cut.

Nobody would disagree that the the Five Elements of Effective Thinking are desired pillars in building curriculum. Where it goes awry is that most of the curriculum(not constructed by classroom teachers) is so dreadfully boring.

How come there isn’t anything from Martin Gardner built into a math curriculum? Oh, that’s right. That is “Recreational” Math. We can’t take that too seriously. Math education still has academic elitism and snobbery drafting its documents.

Honestly. Do you think the math curriculum is written for kids — for kids to develop a lifelong love and curiosity for mathematics?

How Ed Burger addresses failure — effective failure — cannot really exist in the current system. For the simple reason that failure is not completely appreciated — probably can never be — in a culture that still is dominated by incessant curriculum objectives, benchmarks, and testing. To persevere through a problem not only means that the pressure for testing is removed, but also the problems addressed are interesting and compelling for everyone.

The Essence of Mathematical Thinking

You can’t legislate perseverance, resilience, and mathematical stamina. You can’t sell these things without completely changing the landscape of what, how, and why we teach mathematics.

Ed Burger has the credentials and experience to give math education some needed wisdom — even from afar from his President post from Southwestern University. What he is telling us — in no uncertain volume — that failure is a lifelong companion for mathematics. Well, for everything in life.

The roots of mathematics are inextricably woven through philosophy, art, and architecture. Perhaps if we see mathematics through this wider prism, then the human connection embedded here will guide us through what binds us and inspires us — the beauty of failure. The belief that he has in all of us to become are own philosophers and teachers is a wonderful complement to the aspirations of mathematics that Francis Su sees as powerful to the human spirit.

Thank you, Ed Burger. Thank you for still devoting time to think about mathematics deeply, profoundly, and…humanely.



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