Prof. Emeritus Max S. Bell, an influential scholar of mathematics education who co-authored the widely-used curriculum Everyday Mathematics, died March 6. He was 90.
A longtime professor at the University of Chicago, Bell, AM’58, AMT’59, was known for his distinctive approach to improving math education that was grounded in real-world applications and an understanding of student experiences and capabilities built on research centered in the classroom.
Prof. Bell’s work, which included longitudinal studies of math pedagogy and teacher training, was an expansion of the educational philosophy of John Dewey—the founder of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools—who viewed education as an essential tool for strengthening democracy and helping students reach their full potential.
In 1974, Bell published a seminal paper in The Mathematics Teacher, “What does ‘everyman’ really need from school mathematics?,” in which he articulated his belief that a useful math education would help shape students into confident, actively engaged civic participants.
“With a clear idea of what we want for everyman,” he wrote, “we can instead be ‘accountable’ for what we believe can truly help human beings cope with their world.”
Much of Bell’s work focused on the student educational experience in underserved schools on Chicago’s south and west sides. One study of Head Start students from pre-k through third grade showed that intuitive understanding of fundamental math concepts was common among students at a very early age, but deteriorated in elementary school due to a focus on rote memorization.
By raising questions about how math curriculum could be reshaped to instead teach important concepts and pattern intuition in a way that would link math to everyday life, Bell fostered a rethinking of math education that had ripple effects across the discipline.
“The ‘everyman’ paper may have been the most important one published in our field in that decade,” said Zalman Usiskin, an emeritus professor of education who directed the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project from 1987–2019 and worked closely with Bell for years.
Bell furthered his ideas about better math education with the publication of the first edition of the K–6 curriculum Everyday Mathematics—the title of which nods to the “everyman” article—from 1988–1996. In Everyday Mathematics, Max and his wife and co-author Jean F. Bell created a framework for teaching elementary school students core math skills in an accessible way. The curriculum, now in its fourth edition, has been used by tens of millions of students over more than 30 years.
Born in 1930 and raised in southern Idaho, Bell received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1954, along with a teaching certificate. While at UCLA, he met his wife Jean, who would become a lifelong research partner.
After beginning his career as a high school math teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area, Bell came to the University of Chicago as part of a National Science Foundation-supported institute for teachers, through which he earned master’s degrees in education in 1958 and mathematics teaching in 1959.
In 1960, Bell received dual appointments as a teacher at the Laboratory Schools and a lecturer in the University’s Graduate School of Education, a pairing that began his career-long focus on both student and teacher education, research and curriculum development.