Pupils’ Drawings of Mathematicians

Much of the research concerning attitudes to mathematics suggests that pupils and teachers are generally negative about the subject. One of the most startling pieces of research I have come across is that of Picker and Berry (2000). They asked children from five countries to draw pictures of mathematicians.

One of the resulting images, drawn by a 12 year old US pupil, shows a male mathematician, with stained and torn clothing, “bad body posture”, “wrinkles from thinking too hard” and “fat from doing nothing but math”.

Key findings from this study include:

  • Mathematicians are perceived as male (with the exception, in the UK, of Carol Vorderman – TV Presenter of a mathematics component of the British quiz programme, “Countdown”). In Sweden and Romania no pupil of either gender drew a female mathematician.
  • When asked what mathematicians do, many children were unable to provide an answer.
  • Images of mathematicians are overwhelmingly negative – depicted as over-worked people with no fashion sense, unable to form personal-relationships and often unkempt.
  • Mathematicians tend to be drawn as people in power – often as authoritarian teachers, sometimes even with guns or sticks to force children to learn the subject. Similarly, the children in the pictures tend be drawn small (see below).

  • Mathematicians have supernatural powers, allowing them to “do math” in their heads in front of people. Children seem to see mathematics as abstract – a subject outside their experiences, beyond their understanding and almost magical in nature.