The Friday Interview: Mr Olson

18 September 2009

(Image: Mr Olson AKA Swasboss)

Maths at Internationella Engelska Gymnasiet isn't quite like most schools. For starters, it's home to Mr Olson whose radical approach to math teaching embraces social media, online maths programmes and, er, YouTube.

Mark Olson – or Mr Olson as he's known at IEGS– came to Sweden from Canada four years ago after harbouring a desire to explore the country of his forefathers.

"I got talking with people online and ended up getting in contact with distant relatives of mine in Skåne," explains Mr Olson. "I'd always wanted to come to Sweden since I was a child and it was the chance to work at IES Täby that got me here."

In August 2008 Mr Olson left the tranquility of Täby for Skanstull and Södermalm, moving to IEGS. Now at the start of his fourth year in Sweden he's pretty settled.

"It took me three years to get used to the place but now Sweden feels like home," says Mr Olson, who was born and raised in a small community in Northeastern, Ontario, Canada called Swastika.

"I really enjoy working here," he says, soaking up some of the autumn Stockholm sunshine whilst he still can. 'I'm excited about the work we do here, trying to do something different with maths."

Maths Parties

Maths is often the kind of subject that students find daunting, but Mr Olson and his colleagues at IEGS seem to be doing something different.

"I keep hearing about these infamous maths parties," confides school principal Dr Benedikz, slightly bemused. "Parties where students eagerly devour mathematical problems at a very intense rate. It's very different to the kind of maths teaching I had but our students love it."

When I ask Mr Olson about the parties, he tells me that it's just part of his mission to change the way students think about maths.

"I wanted to do something different with maths," says Mr Olson, "to help students grasp it better. Typically mathematics is associated with geeks or nerds or the elite. But maths is something most of us can do if we approach it in the right way. It's not really something to be afraid of. I like to think of it as like learning a language."

By this he means he wants people to use mathematics and mathematical thinking instinctively. Just as we use language to help us communicate and articulate our experiences.

"Even after nine years of maths at junior school students still struggle with simple stuff. At IEG we spend the early weeks of the first year covering a lot of the material that students did in junior high school – quickly and intensely."

"By working with maths in such an intense way we learn transferable skills that feed into the way we think. Just like studying a poem improves your analytical skills, which might be of use to you, say, if you become a lawyer, maths gives you the strategies and patterns to approach other things."

Engelska Gymnasiet – Where YouTube Meets Maths

A bit of a Mac fanboy, Mr Olson doesn't just run maths parties. He's also brought math teaching into the twenty-first century experimenting with blogs, twitter and YouTube as a means to help, encourage and inspire students.

"A couple of years ago I got interested in the way people were using online video," explains Mr Olson. "I loved the energy of YouTube video and started trying to use that energy with with maths. I wanted to help students get more comfortable with it."

Mr Olson isn't doing this for fame or money.

"I'm interested in learning new things and developing as a teacher. YouTube really adds a new dimension."

From the numbers of visitors to his blog and YouTube channel it's clear Mr Olson has struck a chord with an online audience.

"I suppose there's actually money in this," he admits. "But that's not what I'm after. I'm just passionate about teaching maths and helping students get more out of it. I want to change the way maths is perceived and show how relevant it really is for our lives. "

One of the exciting things about the Net is that you can share your material with an online community. Not just people at IEGS.

"That's important," says Mr Olson. "I tell my students the answer to a mathmatical problem is often in the group. They just have to find the right way to answer it with their skills and knowledge. By sharing some of it on, say, YouTube, we can all benefit."

Discover More

Video no longer available.


You can find more of Mr Olson's maths material available online. Alternatively, check out his website and blog.

Finally, if you're a student at IEGS and would like to share some of your experiences of Mr Olson's approach to maths, feel free to do so in the comments.

Internationella Engelska Gymnasiet Södermalm (IEGS) is an international Upper Secondary school located in the heart of Södermalm with a strong academic tradition and a commitment to helping students develop to their full potential.
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