Mary Laycock

Mary Laycock: 1915–2011
Innovative Mathematics Educator Ahead of Her Time


In 2011, the world of mathematics education lost one of its most innovative female educators. Those who love mathematics and teaching owe her so much. While Mary was remarkable in so many ways: publisher of over 100 books and innovative materials, Milken Award Educator (1989), recipient of the California Award for Excellence in Elementary Mathematics Training (1988), California Mathematics Teacher of the Year (1989), and the National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics (NCSM) Glenn Gilbert National Leadership Award (2003); her story as one of the first mathematics educators to advocate hands-on mathematics and discovery learning, should make all educators reflect on what we too can do to improve our profession and make mathematics more accessible to all students.

Mary Laycock: Her story in her own words

“Where did my love for mathematics begin? Because I was a frail young child, I didn’t go to school until I was nine. I do not recall learning to read or work with number ideas. Mother taught me at home and all learning was fun. I do remember resenting having to memorize facts those later elementary school years in Kansas. I wanted to know why even then.

The first real excitement about mathematics came when I was in the seventh grade preparing to move to Mobile where there was no eighth grade. The teacher encouraged my talent in arithmetic and she and my daddy taught me algebra so I could transfer after Christmas into the ninth grade at Murphy High School in Mobile, Alabama. I wrote a perfect algebra 1 mid term and later graduated from Murphy High School as valedictorian and the only girl in the class with four years of mathematics. In geometry I had a teacher that was always amazed that I could prove each theorem another way besides the one presented in the book. The last two years of algebra II, trigonometry, and solid geometry were hard work but a joy!

The valedictorian record helped me win a full scholarship to Judson College. At Judson I held onto the dream of a Math Major and teaching high school mathematics. Only one other girl and I majored in math. We studied together. She did all her work algebraically and I did mine geometrically. When we came up with the same answer, we knew we were correct and we learned by sharing our approaches with each other.

In those days, 1937, girls were discouraged from majoring in math since the men got all the good math jobs. My response was, “Not if you are really good at it!” I had a job open for me, but met J.C. at the University of Alabama were I was taking practice teaching and Theory of Equations. J.C. was chosen by his friends to get a date with me and borrow my notebook. They had been out of school while my math was fresh and quick. We fell in love and he married the notebook, so to speak. He had just broken up with a beautiful girl because she would not go to college. He was looking for someone who enjoyed thinking. He has encouraged my loving to learn all these fifty years.

The first year of marriage I only substituted because the next summer took us to Lexington, Kentucky, to get my practice teaching and start J.C. on a masters. The next three years I taught high school math in Cumberland Kentucky. We continued to go to Lexington those summers where J.C. worked on his masters. The arrival of our oldest of three children allowed only part time teaching between babies. The war was taking the men math teachers so they were begging for any time I could teach.

J.C. went to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, as an engineer and later became a mathematical statistician. Beginning in 1945 through 1968, I taught first junior high school math and the last 25 years at Oak Ridge High School with two years off in between our fourth child.

The scientists who came to Oak Ridge with their young families were insistent on quality teaching for their children. They had helped arrange for the development of many of the innovative programs…SMSC, The Madison Project, and many more. I met many of those leaders like Beberman, Begle, Davis.

Three outstanding Oak Ridge scientists encouraged my enthusiasm for learning mathematics. They were involved in helping create the Secondary School Institutes: Robert Charpie, Lewis Nelson, and Alvin Weinberg. At one point Alvin Weinberg questioned our use of SMSG because Morris Kline had raised questions about it. I explained how I was teaching it to Alvin’s son and we sent Morris a copy of the book and an explanation of how we did it. Dr. Kline agreed that SMSG was fine taught that way.

The summer of 1957 at Columbia was a real turning point. How hard I worked on set theory, numbers to other bases, and probability. In the cases at Columbia were sets of beautiful polyhedra that I admired. Fifteen years later you can understand my glee in helping David Stonerod make the patterns and instructions for making those solids available to children. They were Colonel Beard’s creations!

I had seven summers of the Secondary School Institutes and completed my Masters and fifty hours of graduate mathematics toward a doctorate. During those years at Oak Ridge High School the counselors soon found that I could take the kids with high I.Q.’s and low achievement scores and bring their achievement up dramatically. It was because I made models of every new concept and had them make models. Now I know it worked because I am a spatial learner and I was reaching spatial students who had not learned by traditional methods.

At the University of Tennessee, Donald Dessart was my major professor as I planned the doctorate. The work was planned and a year out of school would be needed to complete it. Jim Yontz was in charge of curriculum in Oak Ridge. He urged me to take on the job of Coordinator of Mathematics K-12…nine elementary schools, two junior highs, and one high school. I decided I would learn more about what I wanted to know doing that than finishing the doctorate. Even Dr. Dessart agreed I could probably contribute more to math education in general that way. I kept three top math classes a the high school and during those years taught every elementary teacher in sixteen two hour sessions so they could understand the SMSG and why it worked. During those years, I worked summers with groups of elementary teachers creating alternative activities and strategies for making sense out of math. In retrospect, we should have offered it for publication because it was some of the first of its kind.

Jim Yontz challenged me to find a high school in American that had a better math program than Oak Ridge High. I had read about Nova in Fort Lauderdale. He sent me there to see it. I met Burt Kaufman that summer and have continued to watch his subsequent work over the years.

All those 25 years in Oak Ridge High School I demanded a quarterly project from my students. The project had to:

  1. Show something beautiful or interesting in mathematics, or
  2. Build a model to illustrate the meaning of mathematics, or
  3. Create something to help other students understand mathematics.

The showcases were full of these beautiful projects. The brilliant parents became involved and how I learned from what those kids brought in to share. The four visuals I did with Creative Visuals were joint projects with some of those students.

Jim Yonts was applying for the job of Director at Nueva Learning Center in California in 1968 and persuaded J.C. to apply for a transfer to the Atomic Energy Installation in California so he could have me create a math program for Nueva so it could be taught just as I thought it should be. Before I left that spring, the students and I collected and moved an exhibit of their projects to the Atomic Energy Museum to be stored until fall for the NCTM conference coming to Knoxville. I returned as a speaker to that conference. It was there I met Dale Seymour who was beginning Creative Publications. Back in California, as I taught at Nueva, I worked with Dale on AFTERMATH, STRAW POLYHEDRA, and MATH ACTIVITY WORKSHEET MASTERS. Verda Holmberg was on that team, too. Later for Activity Resources she did work with me on METRIC MULTIBASE MATHEMATICS, and her own METRIC SYSTEM OF MEASUREMENT with her beloved zebras to illustrate it.

During those early years at Nueva the plan was that each teacher would work twelve months using the summer to write and share what was being developed. Anything we found that might help was ours for the asking. I had all of the Dienes’ books and the Dienes’ blocks. As I tried them with children I saw their excitement and growth in understanding. As I read Dienes’ material I saw what he meant as I learned to watch children’s fingers to understand what went on in their heads. Dienes’ material is outstanding if the teacher has a mathematical background. My gift has been to make Dienes’ message understandable to teachers.

I collected exciting ways to stimulate the children on 5×7 cards from every source and my own observations and found visitors who came to observe were copying my cards. Since Karen Stone, the founder of Nueva, was urging staff to create a product, it seemed logical to make my cards into a book…hence, THE FABRIC OF MATHEMATICS. Gene Watson, who was director then, helped organize it. Since I had written books for Dale at Creative Publications, I offered FABRIC to him and twelve other publishers. All said they would do it if I would reference only their materials. My response was, “That would not be right because many sources had great things.” J.C. said we would have it printed ourselves. In the first year it sold in every state and province and seven foreign countries.

In 1973 we had a foreign student from Pakistan sent by the State Department of the U.S. She enjoyed all the Nueva activities, but when asked what part of Nueva would she like to share with her American school in Lahore, Pakistan, it was Mary Laycock and her kind of math. So in 1974 I spent two weeks in Pakistan teaching the children and teachers there to use Dienes’ blocks and many of the other strategies we had assembled. It was a tremendous experience and what a culture shock! 

The years from 1974 to the present need to include separate accounts of the many people in California who have become involved in this strange crusade to help students understand and enjoy mathematics in addition to acquiring the basic arithmetic skills. 

Peggy McLean, Lee Jenkins, Margaret Smart, Del Alberti, Betty Sternberg, Jack McLaughlin, Lisa Gittings, Reuben Schadler, Verda Holmberg, Connie Johnson, Virginia Downing, Jeanette Arakawa Lee Shultz, and many more.

There are places and people connected with the consulting and inservice that have had an influence and would add to the story. The places other than Nueva that are my pride and joy are Cotati with Jan Heffron, Columbus with Chris Lime, Lodi with Donna Shreve, and Harbor Math/Science Gifted Magnet with Darlene Dye. Their success stories are an essential part of my crusade because they demonstrate how necessary administrative support is in changing the way kids in a school learn to love mathematics.

California has just written and adopted a new State framework on mathematics. All the parts of the crusade to make mathematics make sense to kids are in it. For example; “Every new concept should be introduced with a manipulative, students learn by doing, games and social interaction with peers results in greater mastery of concepts and facts than drill sheets, students must ask questions and search for many ways to solve problems.” I feel like the world has finally come around to understand what I have been trying to do all these years.

There is a real reason for the new problem solving-thinking approach to mathematics. Anything that we can write out a rule for can be done by a computer, and the laborious boring work can be done by a robot. If our students are going to have worthwhile work in the future, they must be thinkers. Doing mathematics so it makes sense, starting by building with manipulatives, making sketches, doing the arithmetic, and talking about why it all works will develop thinkers in the finest way. Students are great thinkers!”