Dr. Robert Davis | Webster University

Dr. Robert Davis

Dr. Robert Davis

Black and white photograph of Robert Davis at chalkboard

Dr. Robert B. Davis, the leader of the Madison Project, was a mathematician and educator. He earned his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT, and was fascinated with how students learned mathematics. During his professional career, he was associated with the University of New Hampshire, Syracuse University, Webster College, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Rutgers University. He was involved in several major math education movements, such as the Madison Project and PLATO. Davis was also an adviser to Sesame Street.


Davis, the visionary, wrote in 1965 that “the need to produce well-educated people is becoming more and more the central problem of our society, and, within education, mathematics and science are assuming even greater importance.” 1 Davis believed this problem could be remedied in several ways, such as rescheduling school classes, rethinking education philosophy, advancing teacher education, combining lab experiences with math and relying less on textbooks.



Longtime colleague Don Cohen said of Davis, “He had this idea that he wanted to teach important math to young people. I think that was his mission. I think he wanted to do it on a very large scale,” Cohen said.2


Davis, the researcher, was always interested in what others were doing. In his search for new ideas, Davis traveled to meet well-known researchers and visit elementary classrooms across the country.


Davis said when he and his team held a workshop, they would be sure to include someone who was not part of the Madison Project, Each time, he and his team would learn something very interesting and incorporate it into the Madison Project curriculum.3


These new ideas helped the Madison Project to evolve over the years, while still retaining its central purpose. Originally using algebraic models, the project moved to use manipulatives, including logic blocks and Cuisenaire Rods.


Davis, the mentor, influenced many who have since made significant contributions to the field of math education. Marilyn Burns is perhaps the most recognizable of these educators, though his influence was widespread. Madison Project colleagues Gordon Clem, Gail Lowe-Parrino and Katharine Kharas spoke about Davis’s mentorship in later years. We leave you with their thoughts of this exceptional man.


Gordon Clem: “Bob Davis was absolutely wonderful in finding good and strengths in people who didn’t even know that they had those strengths and resources. He just kept on telling them how wonderful they were. And if the teacher has ability, and somebody of Bob’s stature says that they’re wonderful, they just keep going at it.” 4


Gail Lowe-Parrino: “I always say that Bob Davis gave us our wings. And once we had our wings, we could fly.” 5


Katharine Kharas: “I learned many techniques from Bob. How to listen seriously to students and what they were saying, how to elicit students’ thinking, how to be more respectful of students in general. He was tremendous in that area.” 6


A biographical sketch and guide to many of Davis’s papers is available through Rutgers University at http://www2.scc.rutgers.edu/ead/uarchives/davis2f.html



1Davis, Robert B. The Madison Project: a Brief Introduction to Materials and Activities. 1965. ED028948

2Steven Schulman, What Was The Madison Project? (Doctoral dissertation) (ProQuest LLC, 2009, UMI No. 3373682), 263.

3 Ibid., 282.

4Ibid., 287.

5Ibid., 353.

6Ibid., 337.