Mathematics for Smart Dummies

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At this particular moment, with the general election just moments away, All Change Please! feels it would be inappropriate to indulge in Partly Political Posts because of the influence it might have on the millions of followers it doesn’t have. On the one hand, almost anything would be better for education than another term of the hopelessly unqualified Messers Mickey Gove and Nicky Morgove teaching the class, but on the other one has to wonder just how much better informed the other parties are.

Take this recent article that reports that Labour’s plans for all students to continue to take maths until the age of 18 are the “best protection against unemployment”. And apparently “Our future success as a nation depends on all young people taking maths to 18”, not to mention that “It is essential that everyone is mathematically literate in this scientific age”  – as a number of leading and in no way biased mathematicians predictably proclaimed with 110% certainty and no margin for error to an infinite number of decimal places.

Now this is fair enough if a student is going on into a technical or scientific area but the vast majority won’t be. When was the last time you factorised a quadratic equation involving a surd, constructed a perpendicular bisector and solved a linear inequality?

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“All I wanted to know is how much it would be for a cup of coffee…”

The problem is that the sort of Maths taught for GCSE, and presumably beyond, is not particularly interesting, exciting or relevant to the everyday maths skills that are actually needed in the typical workplace. And anyway, even then it seems to have completely escaped everyone’s notice that Siri (the vocal iPhone assistant) is more than capable of solving maths problems for you, and showing you how it worked it out. And, even better, there’s also Photomath, a free App that enables you to take a photo of an equation, and it will calculate it for you.

Now of course you can’t take a Smart Phone into a formal examination – but All Change Please! wonders if anyone has yet thought about the future need to also ban iWatches, which once they incorporate a camera, could unobtrusively run the Photomath app as you seemingly check to see how much time you’ve got left?

To be fair, Marcus du Sautoy’s remark above has, surprise surprise, been taken somewhat out of context. In this article he suggests a second maths GCSE course might:

 “…expose students to the big ideas of maths: concepts of infinity, the maths of symmetry, the challenge of prime numbers. It is finding out what maths is really about that might change the national mindset…”

“What will be important is making sure that the maths we expose students to is both relevant to their future and the future of our country.”

Although All Change Please! would like to suggest that the logic and rationality in the world he seeks needs tempering with a good dose of creativity and imagination as well. But what is quite clear is that the teaching – and examining – of maths needs a major 21st century overhaul.

Meanwhile the key maths skills that politicians probably need right now is the ability to furiously calculate the complex permutations of coalition party members they will need to work with in order to form the next government.

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6th May Update…

Would you believe it – someone just has:

Students ticked off by ban on watches in exams

Photo credits: Flickr / Mulan / Sean MacEntee / Mulan