*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.ie. 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:

31 PRIME

331 PRIME

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…