RIP Malcolm Swan

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.”

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. I encourage you all to use this space to pass along a story. A story about Malcolm perhaps, but I imagine he’d prefer a story about how your students have experienced his work.

    • Deborah Bardsley

      May 13, 2017 - 4:50 am -

      Malc Swan’s name arrived before him when he was a leader on a teenagers’ Christian houseparty in the mid-70s, arriving a day or so late. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but he was so hyped, I didn’t think he’d take notice of a newbie like me, being busy catching up with all those he’d met in previous years. He ended up at our table the first night, and I got to realise what a great guy he was.
      The next year, he was doing his teaching practice at the boys’ school across the road, attending their Christian Union, as did I from time to time – a comfort to see a familiar face when my father died during that year. However, I don’t think he was thinking about that when he cracked a joke about “parents being a dead loss” – I managed to laugh, despite the tears.
      Only years later did I discover he was behind the Standard Units, much loved by my PGCE tutor.

  2. Me, I’ll only add that I thought so much of Malcolm that I skipped out on a quarter at sunny Stanford to live in the middle of England during its coldest winter in fifty years hoping I could learn just a little more from him by way of that proximity. We worked in the same building but I think I saw him on all of four days that quarter. To this day, I think to myself: “Worth it.”

  3. Last year we organised a maths teachers seminar and invited Malcolm to talk which he accepted. Unfortunately Malcolm fell seriously ill in March last year and couldn’t participate but his colleagues Andy, Hugh and Geoff stepped in to help and we had a very successful seminar. Malcolm was, however, present in many senses being so deeply attached to the research presented and made an appearance in many of the videos and photos. As Prof Noyes said at the time, Malcolm is in many ways irreplaceable.

  4. Maggie Stewart

    April 27, 2017 - 10:59 am -

    His work ( particularly standards unit ) changed my practice. Because of Malcolm’s work I became an advanced skills teacher, a lead practitioner and most importantly .. a better teacher.

  5. Maggie stewart

    April 27, 2017 - 11:07 am -

    ‘he designed experiences that endeared students to mathematics, and endeared teachers to students, ‘


  6. Three words: The Bottle Problem. I met Malcom in Oxford at ICME 2013. I asked him how the infamous Bottle Problem came to be. He said it emerged from a roundtable discussion with Freudenthal in the early 80s. In the 90s I was using Shell Centre activities with my high school students.

  7. Well said, Dan. I was fortunate enough to meet him a few ago when he was in the Bay Area for an SVMI event.

    • Every word you wrote about Malcom of blessed memory is most fitting. Having been a member of ATM in the u.k. for over 50 years I always welcomed what he wrote and was always glad to meet him at conferences.

  8. Damian Howison

    April 27, 2017 - 11:44 pm -

    From Malcolm I have learned to design lessons and activities that bring so much mathematical thinking and conversation out of my students, students of all ages. Because of him I have stood in my own classroom mid-lesson and felt like an absolute champion because of what my students are doing around me. I owe him a great deal and have felt saddened by his passing.

  9. I have a feeling students working out problems on whiteboards wouldn’t be as prevalent without his work. In his documents he called them “slates.”

    I love the Shell Centre activities because each one has varying levels of difficulty within it to make it more accessible for all students.

    I also think his impact is felt when he empowers teachers to assess formatively and respond to students with comments, not grades initially, and to adjust the lesson with students background knowledge in mind.

  10. A thoughtful and appropriate tribute to a good man. I had an opportunity to spend a day in Nottingham a few years ago, and Malcolm was incredibly generous with his time, knowledge, and expertise. I continue to use his materials with the maths teacher candidates and inservice teachers I work with.

  11. Kevin Mansell

    April 29, 2017 - 8:36 pm -

    I had the privilege of meeting Malcolm in his very first teaching job in Derby, UK. I recall a nervous novice, loved by his charges whose innovative illustrated worksheets challenged, intrigued and brought real mathematics into their lives. An early theatrical collaboration witnessed Malcolm as composer, singer and guitarist!
    We worked together later as part of the Shell Center team at Nottingham University. I remember the anticipation and excitement as ‘Problems with Patterns and Numbers’ was about to reach fruition and the classic ‘blue box’ appeared. Professor Hugh Burkhardt did much to nurture Malcolm’s talents. He remarked that Malcolm was capable of single-handedly completing every step of the process from selection of original content, drawing trade-mark cartoons, providing stimulating assessment tasks and producing quality professional development materials. I have a thousand fond anecdotes to tell but Dan Meyer once paid me a great compliment. At one in-service meeting at Hong Kong International School, Dan observed: ‘ You’re just like the people at the Shell Center’…such has been the influence of Malcolm on me and the treasured math practices that bear the impress of his unique hand.

  12. I met Malcolm while working on the Underground Mathematics resources. I was a novice at professional resource design, but his writings, insight and advice to us really helped shape the way I now think and have influenced the resources we have created. He was a generous master of the craft, and will be much missed.

  13. I stumbled upon his The Language of Functions and Graphs aka The Red Book during my third year of teaching and it has influenced my understanding and teaching ever since. My students and later teachers with whom I work have experienced the power of comparing distance time graphs to velocity time graphs. Powerful work.

  14. Judy Mendaglio

    May 8, 2017 - 5:17 pm -

    Each year, I share Malcolm Swan’s writings and talks with my teacher-students. In the same way that Swan’s problems challenge students to wonder and reason and share their thinking, his thoughts on mathematics education challenge teachers to reflect on what they do, why they do it, and how they might do it better. We thankfully still have a rich collection of papers and resources that he generously shared with us, and he will continue to change the mathematical experiences of teachers and students for generations to come.

  15. Carol Springett

    May 21, 2017 - 6:10 pm -

    I too knew Malcolm Swan in the 70s from the Christian house parties that Deborah Bardsley mentioned earlier. Not well, and my memories are somewhat blurred. Many years passed… I was fortunate enough to be teaching in FE in 2005 when the Standards Unit box for maths arrived at work, along with the opportunity to study for the “Subject Learning Coach” qualification which I jumped at, especially when I saw that Malcolm had written the materials for maths. It transformed my teaching and set me off on a path to study for a Masters Degree. I hope to complete the MA in a year’s time. Such an inspirational man, my condolences to his family.