Saturday, December 23, 2006

Double Maths

I feel vindicated. For years I spent hours enduring my mathematician father telling me the answer wasn't the important thing in maths, it was how you got to it that counted. It was all very well for him, he could do it. I couldn't. I wanted him to give me the answer so I could see where we were going and understand the underlying routing. Would he give it to me? Not on your life. Did I understand it any better because he explained in mathematical gobbledigook how to solve a particular problem? Er, no. I couldn't see the general direction, didn't understand whether an answer was likely to be right or not, and wondered hopelessly when I would ever need to use most of it.

My father read Maths at university (Cambridge), but, like many who have a natural understanding of maths, was completely incapable of explaining it to dunderheads like me. Was his talent shared with any of this three children? Nope. We all struggled, although we did get that oh so important maths 'O' level; the gateway to university for some reason.

Today I read in the Times that Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford says it's important to keep children interested in maths, to make it relevant to everyday life and to show them the big picture. He suggests teaching it in a similar way to music:
You have to teach all the scales and arpeggios, but first you have to play the finished piece of music to the pupil so they know what they are aiming for. To inspire and excite you have to show the big picture of what they are aiming for first even if they don’t yet understand how to get there.
Ha! You see? Give me the big picture (and the answer) and there'll be a vague chance I might be able to look at the problem without my eyes immediately glazing over, my brain seizing up, or a knee-jerk 'I can't do it' reaction, or even a stupid answer to 6+7. (I had a mental block over this for some time, when I was a wee thing, and it used to incense my father, which caused further blockage, a stricken brain, and wild guessing.)

I see similar reactions in my eldest. Poor lad, he doesn't seem to have inherited his dad's mathematical skill either. Why do these mathematicians keep things for themselves? Selfish buggers.

Pr du Sautoy suggests that learning a musical instrument helps in the understanding of maths. I can't say I agree with him. I learned three and it made no difference at all. I reckon it helps those that are already good at maths to get even better. It's a very insular gift.

However, he does seem to have some very interesting thoughts on relevant maths, such as the idea that adolescents could be enthused by stories of mathematical discovery, the magic of prime numbers with examples of these in Nature. I do agree that there is some fascinating stuff to learn about maths out there... (eek), and I even enjoy watching the tele show 'Numb3rs', but school maths is dire, 'O'level maths was ghastly and I decided that if I never saw another maths problem again as long as I lived after I'd got through it, it would be a day too soon.

Maybe my youngest will be the new maths champ in our family... I know it would make his dad happy at least....


  1. Nope.Cambrian influence still runs through the family.Discipline and creativity abundantly evident.

  2. Thank you, anonymous... :)

  3. On the subject of Maths - will have to tell you a shameful and funny ashamed to put it on your blog, but you'll luv it!

    You know, that old lady with talent for all sorts of things, and who is supposed to have an incredibly frightening QI...who got into medical school at 16....well I have a terrible story to tell you about her aptitude for maths!!!!!


  4. You could always post it anonymously... :p

  5. I sympathise. My brain shuts down when a number appears over the horizon and I'd probably have a better chance at reading Chinese than solving an equation.
    Is younger son left handed as that's a good indication of a mathematician?
    Wishing you a very happy Christmas,

  6. Angela, no he's mostly right-handed, so there's not much hope for him...

    The funny thing is, I can do stuff like Einstein's Enigma which is problem-solving, and quite enjoy it. I think it's when you bring letters into it that my brain goes blank. Numbers mean something, letters representing numbers don't.


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