A tribute to Professor David Johnson (26th March, 1936 – 17th March, 2020)

Written by Margaret L. Brown, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics Education, King’s College London

Professor David C. Johnson was a pioneer in many aspects of mathematics education and computer education, first in the United States and later in the United Kingdom. He combined rigorous educational research with equally rigorous development of the curriculum, of high quality teaching resources and of teacher professional development, aiming to provide all students with an engaging and relevant education. He worked by forming collaborations with others, including researchers, policymakers and teachers, and acted as a wise research supervisor and adviser to a whole generation of leading researchers in both mathematics and computer education.

David was one of twin brothers born in Minnesota, USA, to Carlton, a retail manager and shop owner, and Dora, a shop worker. He gained a BA from Colgate College (now Colgate University) in  Rochester, New York State, and then a PhD from the University of Minnesota, where he taught for 17 years (1961-78), progressing to become Professor of Mathematics Education. This included a 5-year period as the Head of the Mathematics Department in the Laboratory School attached to the university.

David was an active member of the research committee in the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and was chosen as the founding editor of the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, first published in 1970. This quickly became, and remains, the leading international mathematics education research journal, reflecting the high standard he set at its inception. In another ground-breaking publication from the NCTM, a 1980 reference book Research in Mathematics Education, David contributed two key chapters The research process and Types of research, and also edited and provided the commentary for an important section of case studies.

Parallel to his leading role as an educational researcher, David was becoming an early enthusiast for the use of computers in the mathematics classroom, not to practise skills but to both support the development of important mathematical concepts and to refocus the curriculum for a computer age by introducing a greater emphasis on the ideas which underpin computer use, especially algorithms and iteration.

He led a team in the production of a school textbook series Computer Aware Mathematics Project (CAMP) which pointed the way for developments in other countries. One prescient result identified by an independent research study was that this teaching of simple programming (now known as coding) improved attainment in algebra. He also established a much copied innovative graduate programme.

While in Minnesota, David married his first wife, who gave birth to their daughter Pamela. They later divorced and while on sabbatical in Cambridge, working with Robert Harding on the use of computers to teach university mathematics, he re-connected with his future second wife Katie. This led to a move to the UK in 1978, when he was appointed to the Shell Chair in Mathematics Education at Chelsea College, part of London University. This was already becoming a leading centre for mathematics education research, under his predecessor Geoffrey Matthews, and for computer education, with Bob Lewis. David became Deputy Director of the Centre for Science and Mathematics Education at Chelsea under Professor Paul Black, and later after the merger into King’s College London, Deputy Head of the School of Education under Professor Arthur Lucas.  He was later also appointed on a part-time basis from 1991-93 to the Research Professorship of Mathematics Education at the University of Louisiana, Baton Rouge, to lead the development of a Centre for Mathematical and Scientific Literacy.

At Chelsea/King’s, David directed a series of major projects in the teaching, learning and assessment of mathematics at primary and secondary level. These included Concepts in Secondary Mathematics and Science (CSMS), Strategies and Errors in School Mathematics, Children’s Mathematical Frameworks, and Graded Assessment in Mathematics (GAIM), Nuffield A-level Mathematic, Evaluation of the Implementation of National Curriculum Mathematics, Cognitive Acceleration in Mathematics Education (CAME), Effective Teachers of Numeracy and the Leverhulme Numeracy Research Programme (LNRP). These projects were variously funded by major charities, government and research councils, with the intention of improving classroom learning in mathematics. They included a range of qualitative and quantitative research methods, rigorously employed, and entailed working, with differing emphases, with children, teachers, and professional advisers, sometimes with very large numbers of students involved. The outputs included the identification of conceptual progressions in mathematics learning; comparisons of the effectiveness of innovative teaching methods, themselves informed by earlier research; the devising and implementation across more than 150 schools of an 11-16 and GCSE assessment scheme, and the production and evaluation of a new A-level mathematics curriculum and accompanying set of A-level mathematics textbooks for the computer age. They informed a series of policy initiatives, including The Cockcroft Report, the development of GCSE, the first and subsequent versions of the National Curriculum and its models of assessment, the National Numeracy Strategy and subsequent developments. Yet even so, due to a series of conservative ministers from both parties who valued tradition over the attempt to implement teaching methods, assessment and curricula which were research-based and appropriate to the 21st century, this vast programme of research has had much less impact than it deserved.

Alongside these projects David maintained his initial enthusiasm for the use of computers in mathematics classrooms, and broadened his interest to include computer education more generally. He became an active member of the Education Committees of the British Computer Society, and of the International Federation for Information Processing, which established his international reputation. Most importantly he gained funding for and co-directed a major project Computers in the Curriculum which was the most generously funded government computer education project; it unusually gained repeated funding and lasted for 19 years, from 1972-91. Here again the aim was to use computers to improve the teaching of important concepts in existing school subjects, and the development process involved groups of teachers and researchers in each subject discipline working to develop and test activities for pupils. As with David’s mathematics education projects, this work at the time put the UK up among the international leaders in the use of computers in schools.

Following on from this, he also co-directed an influential large-scale government-funded project Impact of IT on children’s achievements (ImpacT) evaluating the effectiveness in terms of results of computer use in schools.

David’s role in these projects was strategic: setting aims, writing and securing the funding bids, overseeing the management, staffing, research methods, ongoing evaluations and final reports. He was careful to ensure that each project kept on track, finished on time and within budget, with final reports and academic papers written. But in some projects his role was also very hands-on; he enjoyed working with teachers and researchers in professional development sessions and in classrooms.  Throughout his career he continued to keep up to date with research and practice, reviewing many journal articles for editors, and to publish frequently, often collaboratively, in journals, books and reports. He communicated clearly to audiences of different types, writing logically and fluently.

Across the 25 year period of this research, David mentored and inspired, and in most cases supervised the doctorates of, a progression of mathematics education and computer education researchers, including ten future professors, many of whom in turn became leaders in these fields: Kath Hart, Margaret Brown, Steve Lerman, Mike Askew, Dylan Wiliam, Jeremy Hodgen, Richard Noss, Margaret Cox, Deryn Watson, David Squires.  Many others who worked on the projects also went onto further research or took leading roles in curriculum development and/or policymaking: Alice Onion, Gill Close, Mundher Adhami, Sue Johnson-Wilder, Julia  Anghileri. He also successfully supervised many overseas doctoral students (altogether he supervised more than 35 successful doctorates) who went on to make contributions in their own countries. He was an excellent supervisor, always setting ambitious but achievable objectives for students, and a shrewd judge of what type and degree of guidance each student needed.

David was hugely respected as a scholar, researcher, teacher and administrator who was never self-seeking, always acting decisively and with integrity. But above all he was much loved by those to whom he was a generous mentor, friend and collaborator. He was always good company and could converse entertainingly with people of all backgrounds.

David retired from King’s in 2004 to spend more time with his second wife Katie, and with his daughters Ashlie (a barrister) and Sophie (a hospital doctor), and their families.  At times in his life David, although apparently very fit, suffered from medical emergencies: he had polio as a child, later a serious heart attack and then a major stroke. From all of these he made amazingly good recoveries, with his family’s (and especially Katie’s) strong support, but on March 17th 2020, aged 83 he died peacefully of heart failure after a long illness.