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

Say Hello to iSir!

The initial response to the iPhone 4S has been one of disappointment in that it did not appear to incorporate any new, amazing wow-factor forms or functions – even though subsequent sales are reported to have been excellent.

But it seems there is something new on-board that may yet prove to be another Apple-led game-changer, and that’s Siri – the voice recognition system. This appears to potentially offer a lot more than the notion of shouting operating system instructions to your desktop monitor, as it enables the user to have a private telephone conversation with their virtual assistant. So instead of opening up an app or searching Google for, say, a weather forecast, you can just quietly ask, ‘What’s the weather like today”? Or maybe ‘What day and time is Dr Who on?”, “Where is the nearest AppleStore”, etc.

Essentially Siri makes it easier to find factual information. So, “What’s the capital of Brunei?” Don’t know? Well you could go to the library and find an Atlas, laboriously type in a search on Google (so 2010?), or now – just pick up your iPhone and, for example, ask it “What’s the capital of Brunei?”

Of course at present Siri is still a bit unsophisticated, and  needs to be made to work better in noisy spaces. But we can doutless assume that over its next few iterations, Siri will become a lot more sophisticated as it becomes increasingly able to match its answers to the historical and contextual information it has about the user with the vast amount of global data it has access to.

” Siri will also be optimized to Bluetooth 4 headsets that will create far more use cases in how it will detect questions from continuous speech. In the future, later versions of Siri will be “Active”, continuously adjusting to interjecting answers even when no direct question was asked (within reason). This will make interaction far closer to an interaction with a friend than any device we have ever used.” 


So before long it seems like we could all have a personal on-board virtual knowledge agent – surely called iSir – ready at hand to automatically answer any factual question that anyone cares to ask. As usual though, the possibilities and implications for education, teaching and learning are yet to be considered and explored.

But just how clever will Siri get? The other day I had cause to pose what was not quite the ultimate question, “When was the chocolate biscuit invented?”. Sadly I didn’t have the opportunity to ask Siri (perhaps somebody would, and let me know what it replies?), but I’m guessing it would have been honest about the whole thing and reply “Nobody Knows“, which it seems they don’t. But that wasn’t good enough for me and so I had to resort to trying to find out for myself and be able to provide some sort of answer. As the result of a lot of cross-referencing and creative collaboration, I did eventually at least discover that the first commercially manufactured chocolate biscuit was the 1924 “Chocolate Wholemeal Digestive”. On the way though I serendipitously learned a lot of other quite interesting things about confectionery production and the separate origins of chocolate, and of biscuits (though sadly not the Eureka! moment when someone placed a piece of chocolate on top of a biscuit and went “Wow, this tastes really good!”).

Anyway, so all you need now is a Bluetooth ear-piece and next time your knowledge-testing teacher asks the class “What is the capital of Brunei?*” then your iPhone will immediately and secretly provide you with the answer! More seriously, this provides further evidence that we urgently need to start to redefine what items of knowledge needs to be learnt and what can be instantly accessed on a ‘need to know’ basis. For example, I suggest it is still useful to know that there is a country called Brunei that is somewhere in Asia, but learning the name of the capital is no longer necessary. But more importantly than knowing the facts is having the ability to ask the right questions, being able to look in multiple locations and make possible connections, and of course how to analyse, assess and evaluate the accuracy and reliability of what is discovered. Surely now we should start to leave the facts to Siri and start to teach the knowledge search skills we will all need in the 21st century?

I can hear it now in a thousand supposedly mobile phone digital-free lessons: “When I said ‘Put you hand up if you know the answer’, I didn’t mean ‘Put your hand up to your earpiece…”

Meanwhile there’s an amusing test of Siri here:

And it’s good to see that Siri doesn’t take itself too siriously:


And this is great too!  siris-got-talent-iphone-4s-duets-in-a-touching-love-song-video

*OK, OK, Seeing as you keep asking, the capital of Brunei is……Bandar Seri Begawan