Dr Laura Tuohilampi

Mathematics Education
University of Helsinki, 2016
Tell us a bit about yourself – what was your PhD about and where did you study?

It was about the cultural impact of how individual perception of mathematics is related to the social atmosphere we experience in our mathematics classrooms. Sometimes you can have low self-efficacy in mathematics and yet have an overall positive experience of it, because of cultural promotion of maths. And vice versa: you might have really high-level skills in it, feel positive about your skills in general, but still experience mathematics in a negative way due to cultural factors.

Another important finding was that basically all students, globally, end up losing their interest towards mathematics. They either lose it totally, or at least it comes down – not applying everyone of course, but many. Most. Even good performing students may end up choosing not to use their skills in the adulthood / pursue maths related careers because of those affective experiences. That equals to the whole mathematics education getting wasted.

What do you do now? What did you decide to do next after gaining your PhD?

I was really interested in my findings, and I had also been teaching maths for some years by then, so I knew things could be done differently. In my PhD, there was evidence showing that one lesson per month, if dedicated to extreme student centredness, open questions and no rush, was enough to make a significant change in how students’ affective experiences were. Other lessons were to be kept as they were, yet the overall dynamics improved in all lessons as everyone got more engaged and felt safer.

So I wrote a book called Math Hunger (in Finnish), and started to give workshops and talks. I ended up being quite well known in Finland, and got a few awards, by my thesis and my work for making maths inspiring and inclusive. My academic career progressed well too, and after a few temporary lecturing positions I was hired to a permanent position in the University of Helsinki soon after having completed my PhD.

I was working a lot, founded a company around Math Hunger, networked and started to give talks and workshops around the world. Soon I’d given talks in a considerable number of countries, covering Europe, Asia, North America and Australia.

I got a contract of an international version of the book Math Hunger (that will be out early 2021). Then I got hired to the University of New South Wales, Sydney. I had been experimenting a lot by then, both when it comes to teaching mathematics directly to students, and giving alternatively structured workshops to teachers. I might just stop people on the streets, or approach them in coffee houses, and challenge them to discuss some maths. Which people always love! So in my current position, we are doing a research study of giving professional development through social media, online, making it personal and showing publicly what it is to fail, get over your failures, and also how to succeed. Making vicarious experiences, even the hard ones, public and relatable, which hasn’t really been seen in education.

Corona happened just when I had moved to Sydney, so I also started to interact with people through social media. I started posting entertaining stories of how I use mathematical thinking in my everyday decision making and problem solving. That started to attract lots of audience, so at the moment I am also in a process of professionalising that idea, making an app (most likely) to help people develop their everyday thinking and keep their brain fit for life.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer prospective students considering a PhD?

Do! Whataver you do, just keep on doing. If nothing works, you should try something different, but on the other hand you can never know whether the thing that didn’t work would actually take you there if you just gave it a few more trys. This is what I teach my students in maths lessons as well: Don’t think what you should do, you most probably don’t know what will take you to your goal. Do whatever you CAN do. Usually we can do lots of things that are really easy (like, write whatever for 10 mins a day, read an article even though it might not feel important, take a break, talk to someone, send that email…) Those things can take us further, but we restrain from doing those things because we cannot see their value. We tend to think everything valuable must be really hard, then we focus on the hard stuff, don’t get that done and then feel defeated. Don’t let that happen!

Also: Always look for support in every situation! Even if you have to pay big money for someone to help you with language issues/mental issues / finding healthy routines / promoting yourself / writing a perfect job application / brainstorming your research idea… it might be the best money you’ve ever spent. Don’t count the losses, think of how much you can gain from them. Invest! Believe in yourself! Be smart and brave!

And what one thing would you suggest that new PhD graduates should do next?

To start with, you have to understand what PhD is about. Most people have a wrong understanding of what research is, what researcher life is, what academia is and also how much you can make your career to look like you, which is also what is expected from independent researchers. It’s about making a contribution to this world, and that requires a lot.

To those that pursue further: find the right people, make the hard decisions, take really good care of yourself. Stay curious and feed your passion!

Lastly, what’s your favourite memory from your time as a PhD student?

There are many! I failed massively when I gave my first international presentation – I was super bad in English and also mind wreckingly nervous about public speaking. I basically never delivered that presentation, just stood there and sweat. If you fail, that has nothing to do with what’s gonna come next.

I general, I became really social during my PhD, made a really good network and had lots of fun. I think that’s the most important thing. Work hard, do the uncomfortable stuff and fail, and keep going, and enjoy it! Have lots of fun!

Thanks Laura! How can our readers find out more and get in touch with you?

My Instagram account is at the moment named @laurathemathsbuster, but is likely to be changed in the future. That account can be followed on Facebook too. I really hope lots of people would check out what I do, we are talking about massive resources put to mathematics education, that even nowadays make most of the people feel sorry about their “low intelligence”. They feel stupid! And they’re not! So we shouldn’t waste our money into that, my mission is to change how this world feels about mathematics, it could be a source to develop highly profitable skills, such as:

My company can be found at www.mathhunger.com and also check out www.mathsforhumans.com.

A summary of all the links, including my University profile and Canva page is:

Math Hunger Website | Maths for Humans Website | Instagram | Facebook | University Profile | Canva

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