On Math, Teaching, and the Magic of Bad Drawings: A Conversation with Ben Orlin

Reading this is great. What A Laugh.

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Ben Orlin’s signature stick figures have been (snarkily) explaining mathematical concepts since 2013 at Math with Bad Drawings. By day a math teacher in Birmingham, England, Ben is a voraciously curious, multidisciplinary writer and educator whose work has also been published at The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, and Slate.

As a longtime fan of his blog, I wanted to ask Ben about cannibalistic numbers, his passion for teaching, and some of the more egregious uses of math in popular culture — and he was kind enough to respond not only with his sharp words, but also his beloved “bad” drawings.


Ben Orlin photo

All drawings in this interview are courtesy of Ben Orlin.

What is it about math that made you decide to teach it?

When it comes to learning, I’m pretty omnivorous: I’d have happily taught English, history, or social sciences — anything but lab sciences…

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Mastering a craft (any craft)

Graduating as a primary school teacher meant I taught, lets see ….. English , Maths, Geography, History, Science, P.E., Art, R.E.,  Music, Shona, Needlework ….The realisation years later that I was a Jack of All Trades and a master of none stuck with me and as the years pass one after another, there is a wanting to turn the tables round and master a craft … any craft.

So for the last two decades I´ve been on a mission like a gazelle trying all sorts of crafts and that precisely was the problem. I was choosing any craft and all crafts. I´ve whittled it down to two crafts which for me is a huge and I mean huge achievement. I´m not sure how focused a gazelle is but I do know that they look ahead and run fast. Now if I can focus on just two crafts and run with it, the law of averages say I should be able to cross several finish lines of mastery. I feel optimistic as the goal doesn’t seem overwhelming as long as I stick to two. After all I have a lot of two´s – eyes, ears, hands, feet,… If I continue, no I could say when I continue to run like a gazelle I will be the master of speaking Spanish fluently and spilling my thoughts onto a blog page with ease.

Why have I chosen those two disciplines? Well, for one thing I like communicating on all levels and I´ve felt immense frustration at not being able to express myself fully whilst living in Spain. I constantly feel like that three year old who is still developing a vocabulary but who knows what they want by simply using body language and gesticulating. I´ve often come close to having a tantrum on many occasions because “they” just didn’t fully understand me. I want my language to stop having the robotic set phrases from the text book but to have feeling and meaning.

Writing has played a large role in my teaching life. My mind constantly seeks new ideas, finds them and wants to write them down quickly for fear of losing them, (which is the case now its on overload). It’s not the writing I want to master but the ideas to lay the foundations to storytelling. I marvel at the great storytellers whose words just flow. I have fragments of story which lack body in the form of well constructed words.

So I say to myself. Watch this space. Watch this blog. Watch me be the master of my craft.

Toastmasters Convention 2016

We´re All Winners …..

Watching the YouTube videos of this year´s winners, made me realise that it doesn’t matter how much you are a master of your craft, you have to continue to be innovative. You will see what I mean if you watch a speaker from a decade ago compared to today. All the winners had something different to  grab our attention. See if you can spot what each of the winners had that was unique.