Category Archives: maths

Drawing, maths and languages

Yesterday, when I was talking to one of my friends, she told me that you could see, across the various Facebook posts (my instagram pictures are usually sent across to my Facebook account), how I was getting better at the drawing all the time.

This made me happy for the obvious reasons of you’d like to think that as you do more of a thing, you get better. But this was also the friend with whom I had the original conversation of “I was never very good at drawing” where I realised that I got irate with people who said that about maths or languages and pointed out to myself, about art at least, that for most things, few people started out very good at anything, it was very much a learning by doing thing that got them better. And that I’d never given much time to art because “I was never very good at it”.

So the above is some approximation of Mount Fuji, done on a train last week or the week before. Let me tell you, drawing on trains in Ireland is not easy. The trains bounce quite a bit. You need to get the drawing bit done in Heuston before the train sets off. The painting bit, requiring a lot less precision, is okay.

I’ve found myself in conversations about learning Irish during the week and the message I have taken away from it is that many people, in Ireland at least, are unable to draw advantages from things they have to do, even when they don’t want to do it. When you point out those advantages, you get yelled at.

It is fair to say that usage of Irish is not particularly broad, but that’s not why anyone really learns it, and even if you never see yourself speaking Irish, there are tangible benefits to learning it as it has a lot of sounds that are just not in English which may be useful should you want to learn another language later.

What that language might be is also something you cannot dictate at the age of 4 or 5.

I don’t speak Irish on a day to day basis, mostly because an chaighdeán and I speak slightly different varieties and I just don’t understand the radio a lot. But I do speak French and German significantly more regularly and I am learning Finnish. Having learned Irish has fed into all three of those, especially the Finnish (as it happens). Knowledge is only wasted if you are the wasting type.

What saddens me most is the argument that education should be dictated purely by what most people are likely to need to earn money. Education should be directed towards equipping people to learn on an ongoing basis, and towards teaching them to think.

When I see a lot of arguments online in Ireland, I feel that in those two objectives at least, education has failed. Much of the argument also centres on how education has failed to provide adequate vocational training. If we focused on education like this, then arguably, 80 years ago, it was fair enough to get people out of school when they were 12, not worry too much if they could read or write, because sure, they weren’t ever really going to need it, were they?

We got to a space in our country where we provided an adequate basis for people to develop their own views on their lives and then move on. I sometimes feel that with a focus on what “industry needs” and “what people need for their careers” that we will lose that view of education, that it is a tool for living, and not just a tool for an employer.

Which brings me back to art.

It’s hard to make a living from art. Most people can’t. An awful lot (embittered photographer comment coming up) of people expect to be able to get art for free or “a credit, which will be good for you”.

Most of the people I know in the tech sector, so people who do the currently fashionable professions of tech related programming, network management or software design, system administration or whatever you’re having yourself, have developed hobbies which are fundamentally not tech focused. Anecdotally, for the women, it tends towards craft work, knitting, crochet, sewing, and for the men, it tends towards craft beer, and, wood turning.

This leads me to think that despite arguments that the tech sector can be very creative, in terms of designing solutions to problems, that creative side of things is not really tangible enough.

I regret massively that I did not take up drawing and painting at a much earlier stage in my life (and I’m going to write a couple of excuses in a moment).

Part of that is because there is, I think, a truth missing from our lives. It really doesn’t matter how good you are at something provided you are enjoying doing it. And if you focus on enjoying it, you may wind up getting good at it.

We are not all born to be Olympic champions but that’s not why people go running every day.

School is where we should be getting the fundamentals of these skills, the building blocks on which we can build stuff later. Anyone who knows anything at all about languages knows that you never stop learning. No one who is 40 years old today has a static command of their native language. Anyone who works in technology has an ever increasing set of use cases for various words whose meaning was actually reasonably set down prior to tech, eg, analyst, architect, and, let’s face it, computer. Yet, I suspect if someone popped up and suggested that the ability to draw might be a skill which should be part of a rounded education, the same arguments coming from the cohort who see no value in Irish for the simple reason that they were never very good at it (and didn’t bother trying) would be advanced in terms of art. This is a pity because it is predicated on the idea that people are born good artists. But drawing is a skill which can be acquired to some reasonable level.

When I went to school, there was a tendency of seeing some people as good at art, and some as less talent. In many respects, art was seen as a talent and less as a skill. People in my class were seen as good at drawing and the others…well. I was, for the most part, one of the others, bar on one occasion, when I drew a holiday scene, actually won a prize for it, and still had a teacher demanding to know why I didn’t colour in something which, in real life, was white.

In an act of rebellion, I coloured it in pink, when, age the age of 8, I lost that argument. Pink was about the one colour this thing was never going to be. Looking back now, I don’t much remember the praise.

I remember the surprise, the astonishment, that someone from the “Not good at drawing group” (but terribly good at maths and English) had produced something that didn’t look like a spider had been at a paint box. I retreated back to the maths and the English. It seemed somehow safer.

No doubt, there were others who retreated to something else from the maths and English. We all, as children, have our safe places.

There is research around that suggests that kids learn better when effort is rewarded rather than success. I don’t have a link to it handy but it’s particularly interesting in the context of other research which says in the US, in particular, children from Asian families have a view that working at maths will enable you to get better at maths, whereas in other groupings there is a view that you have to have some sort of leaning towards it. With the benefit of hindsight, I’m inclined to see some merit in that argument, and not just limited to maths.

As it happens, I did Mount Fuji twice, once in my watercolour book, and once as part of my inktober getting better at drawing notebook which isn’t so great for paints. This is how it looked first.

#inktober #inktober2015 #sennelier #hahnemuhle #fineliner A photo posted by Me (@wnbpaints) on

When my friends can actually recognise the places I am drawing, this makes me feel very good. Drawing is fun, and you can learn how to do it. The same is true of most things.

Maths and the need to belong.

Declaration of interest: I may be biased.

Colm Mulcahy has written an interesting piece – directed mainly at a US audience but worth a read for all that no matter where you are – on the subject of MathsWeek Ireland is an initiative coming I think, from a couple of lecturers in WIT and although I didn’t/hadn’t time/was snowed under in terms of participating this year (look, I even missed the mathsjam that went with it), I’m really happy to hear it went well. You might have noticed reminders of its existence on Abbey Street in Dublin if you were walking between Arnotts and the back entrance of the Jervis Street Shopping Centre.

He raises a point which I think is quite interesting. It’s not really a new point; in fact, there has been discussion around it for 10-20 years or more. It relates to people’s relationship with maths at school and how that colours their discussions around maths later in life. Put simply, a lot more people are able to admit to difficulties with maths and numbers, than they might, perhaps, to issues with literacy.

Most of the discussion around this that I have seen in the past suggests that in fact, this is because it’s socially acceptable to be bad at maths, not so much bad at reading and there is almost certainly a kernel of truth in that. But I think additionally, it’s something which can be embraced as a starting point. People, in my experience, are much more willing to roll up their sleeves and learn stuff when they can admit that they don’t have a good starting point. It is on this basis that MU123 – the introductory maths module – at the Open University exists, for example.

I didn’t have difficulties with maths as a teenager as it happens – and most of the credit for that will have to go to a Mr O’Connor who taught me maths most of the way through secondary school – and I’m aware that this admission might colour my biases.

I do know people who did have issues with maths. For whom the communications between themselves, and their school maths, just wasn’t effective, so they reach adulthood, convinced they were never great at maths. From what one or two of them have said to me, they just didn’t get a maths context and this closed doors to them. I understand how this can happen, and I know a lot of work is being done in the area of maths education in terms of addressing this. You may not always agree with what they suggest (I’m underwhelmed by Project Maths for example) as a lot of them don’t approach the issue holistically. If you read Colm’s article, you’ll see a little amount of defeatism in the comments regarding the US, and the need to teach people how to use calculators (and give up on basic arithmetic I suppose). I don’t think this attitude of finding the easy way out is what made the US the country it is today, but there seems to be this meme of avoiding the hard stuff when it’s too hard. That in itself is a lesson which is completely separate to mathematics.

But I digress. Via Mathsjam, there is a postcard on my desk at work with the following on it:

3331 PRIME
33331 PRIME
333331 PRIME
3333331 PRIME
33333331 PRIME
333333331 = 17 × 19607843

It looks a lot prettier on a postcard, trust me on that. Anyway. I also have the Batman curve on my desk. Between them, these two things fascinate people, who wander up to my desk for some completely unrelated reason involving actual work. What’s fascinating is that they don’t uniformly have an impact – the prime numbers interesting some people (who weren’t that interested in maths) and the Batman curve (who weren’t that interested in maths). Here in, I think lies the problem. The maths syllabus may be too narrow.

Maths is a huge topic. It covers a whole pile of stuff I’d have killed to do at school (networks. I didn’t know building networks was maths and yet I spent hours as a teenager with a fantasy town trying to figure out the best way to organise a metro around it. The pages are probably still at home somewhere) but couldn’t. A whole pile of other stuff like topology. I know we split into maths and applied maths (and possibly more) but I am wondering if we need to do a ground up re-appraisal of how we teach maths and how we make it inspiring for those who might find it inspiring (as opposed to only those who are covered already).

And I think we sow the seeds too late. I’ve long (as a linguist) been of the opinion that we start teaching languages too late in this country and that there is something to be said for getting kids working with specialist teachers from say, age 10 rather than waiting to age 13 for languages. The same may be true for maths but this would involve – also – reappraising how maths teachers are trained to teach maths. The approach, covering a longer may have to be reappraised and we need to reconsider the existence of a general higher dip in education as not being completely appropriate for all teachers.

I’ve spent some time with Colm. He is absolutely brilliant with cards – it’s fascinating to watch him. I think it’s criminal, in one way, that we don’t have a formal process of getting people like him into schools on a random basis to inspire kids to play around with maths. One of the many projects I have on the backburner is to see about getting more visits to schools (particularly girl schools) for specialists in the area of maths and engineering and computer sciences. This latter may be less necessary in the light of the @coderdojo movement which I may or may not have mentioned here before.

One of the points about debates on education which depress me – they seem to be common in English speaking countries at least – is the heavy emphasis on “when am I ever going to need to….” This attitude is also shared by (and spread) by attitudes. A fifteen year old girl who tells you she’ll never need to prove a theorem is actually lying because the basis of a theorem is logical thinking and this is a key blockbuilder to problem solving. In other words, there is an overly shallow understanding of the benefits of certain elements of learning.

Maths teaching – I think – suffers badly from this rather shallow idea that everything has to be targetted and applied. Most people’s lives change in many different ways from the time they are 15 to the time they retire. I studied foreign languages. I am a computer programmer. I’ve trained as an interpreter. Parents should not be listening to or repeating the words “sure they’ll never need to know [that particular detail]” because that’s not really focussing on the big picture of their child’s future. The more tools you give them, the better their future options are.

It’s worth looking at this ad for the Financial Regulator in Ireland. And then remember, it’s worth more concentrating on including stuff to know than excluding it.

While we’re at it, it’s worth recognising that it is a good thing when people are willing to admit their failings. Because shame, in my book, has never been the most productive motivator. Inspiration and excitement, doors to new worlds on the other hand…


Culture Night – Dunsink Observatory

I’m never really quite prepared for Culture Night – I love the whole idea of it but there seems to be an overwhelming amount of stuff to do so I fear to tread anywhere near Dublin City Centre. I found out by accident yesterday, however, that Dunsink Observatory were doing a few bits and pieces so I ventured out there.

I met a friend there too, family in tow and the overwhelming assessment was that this was fantastic.

Dunsink Observatory is in the grounds of what was William Rowan Hamilton’s house. Its South Telescope is an example of a Grubbs telescope and when your local politician is on to you about knowledge economies, know that in the early 20th century, the world’s leading manufacturer of telescopes was based in Dublin. We have powered the science of the world. In fact, we also had the biggest telescope in the world for a while over in Birr but that’s a different story.

Anyway, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies who own the site were on hand with someone giving a talk about the telescope every 30 minutes, with someone on hand to talk about ICHEC’s work with heavy duty dataprocessing and demonstrating their 3D visualising software. I was absolutely mesmerised by this and took information home because I want to know more. There were people pointing telescopes up and the sky and when I left, one of the telescope operators was about to start looking for what my memory tells me was the Crab Nebula.

The sky was mostly very clear.

The staff were overwhelmed by the turn out – it seems to have far exceeded their expectations and there were a lot of children there which I think is some evidence that here, at least, interest is turning in the direction of science and what it can do for the world. Things like this are inspiring – I know I was fascinated by the Birr telescope when I was a teenager, that here was something that we were best at in the world. That there are no limits.

According to Dunsink’s website, they run public evenings from the observatory a couple of times a week during the winter. My friend and I are definitely, definitely up for that this winter.


AND…dammit…I left before the meteor shower. That’s a pity. Still….next time.


Today is Alan Turing’s birthday

I first discovered Alan Turing by reading The Code Book by Simon Singh. This year is Turing Year; it’s the centenary of his birth and today is the day.

There’s a round up of useful informatino here around activities linked to Turing year courtesy of Christian Perfect here. It’s well worth a look.

I have a job in information technology. Alan Turing was one of the key groundbreakers making the future I live in possible.