In trying to explain to family and friends what Malcolm Swan meant to the field of math education, I’ve been putting him in the same category as Michael Jordan — talents that come along once in a generation in disciplines that are as much art as science. In Swan’s case, he designed experiences that endeared students to mathematics, and endeared teachers to students, more effectively than anyone I know. You can pick up his The Language of Functions and Graphs, now thirty years old, and wonder, “What have we been doing all this time?” Swan drew math out of the world and thought out of our students in ways that feel challenging and new even today.
Malcolm was uncommonly humble and generous for someone of his talent. He was willing to spend time and trade ideas with me long before I had anybody’s name to drop, or any name of my own. He was also uncommonly dedicated to the field of math education, writing articles, giving talks, and hosting workshops, and all throughout you knew he believed completely that you too can do what I do, that math education isn’t art or science so much as it’s design. And he believed that design could be taught and learned.
That’s why I’m sad for everyone who knew Malcolm personally, for his family and his colleagues at the Shell Centre, but I’m not as sad for our profession as I thought I would be. Malcolm’s talent was generational and unique, but he did more than any of us could have hoped to explain it. Over his career, he added to our profession in permanent ways far more than his death now subtracts. I know we will still be learning from Malcolm for decades. And throughout those decades, the best day of my week will be any day I get to introduce a new teacher to his work, and pass along his conviction that “you too can do what he did.”