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Blog: What's in a number?
How our lives are dominated by numbers yet we somehow get it wrong

9. Are you afraid of mathematics?

Some simple sums refused or fluffed by major UK politicians.

In recent weeks, various politicians have been faced with some simple arithmetic as in the picture, and have either fluffed it or refused to answer. At the same time those same politicians have insisted that teachers and school leavers, for example, must be able to answer some straightforward mental arithmetic questions. Let's call a spade a spade here: to call it mathematics is a bit grand. It's just arithmetic! To imagine the full beauty and spectrum of mathematics in its entirety, just to be focusing on arithmetic is depressing. Fear of arithmetic only leads to fear of all mathematics.

Pure mathematics covers geometry, logic, set theory, group theory etc. Applied mathematics covers kinetics, relativity, quantum mechanics etc. Then of course there are areas that fit in the middle, statistics, calculus, vectors and vector calculus etc. There is a tremendous richness apart from arithmetic, which is frankly a bit boring, but that seems to be where the British focus is at the moment. By the way, have you ever noticed when American film directors want cerebral music they quote Mozart, as if no other classical composer existed. Also, a mathematical "genius" is always denoted as proficient at calculus! As if calculus was more difficult than any other branch of mathematics!

As one with a mathematics degree you can imagine that I might despise politicians that can't or won't answer simple sums. Cameron's excuse for not answering 8x9 = 72 is the same as Ms Morgan's for not answering the cube root of 125 or the cube root of 1728 - 11. In the latter case, she was defeated by a 10 year old boy. Her excuse was that if enough journalists (never mind children) ask simple sums, eventually they will fluff one answer and from then on the politician in question will be ridiculed. For example labour MP Mr. Byers thought that 7x8 = 54. Politicians will always be ridiculed anyway: look at Dan Quayle, the US vice president, who couldn't spell "potato". On the surface, the British defence seems reasonable, but let's examine it in detail.

How many questions would you need to ask before getting a wrong answer? In someone who has learnt their "times tables" perhaps a hundred? In my case it would probably have to be many more, but am I kidding myself? Anybody can make a mistake of course. However, journalists are fickle creatures. After a dozen right answers at most from each politician each journalist will give up and move on to pressing issues. So does that mean that Cameron doesn't have the confidence to get ten or twelve right answers in a row? I suspect so. The correct answer for these politicians, then is not to dodge the question but to answer it confidently and then to declare that you are not going to answer any more. That way, we know that the politician can still do arithmetic and the requirement on teachers is not hypocritical.

If we get back then to the teachers, does it make sense to refuse to appoint those who fail simple tests. Again, you might think that I might be for this idea, but I'm not. There is no point in throwing out the baby with the bath water. What we need is decent teachers who are capable of doing arithmetic and don't inspire fear of mathematics in the minds of their students. This isn't going to happen over night and the first step is to get decent teachers and then to educate the educators.

In this context, the Times on 31 January 2015 had an article entitled "Teacher shortage blamed on tough tests". The point is that Mr. Gove, the previous education secretary introduced simple tests (the times calls them "tough tests") for the appointment of primary school teachers. Certainly, these tests seem reasonable for current teachers. Here is the example test published by the Times, and obtained from the Department of education:

Q1: A parents' evening was planned to start at 16.30. There were 20 consecutive appointments of 10 minutes each and a break of 15 minutes during the evening. At what time was the parents' evening due to finish. Give your answer using the 24-hour clock.

Q2: Teachers organised activities for three classes of 24 pupils and four classes of 28 pupils. what was the total number of pupils involved?

Q3: Pupils were asked to stretch a spring to extend it by 40 per cent. The length of the spring was 45 cm. what should be the length of the extended spring (in cm)?

I'm not going to give the answers, which most 15 year olds should manage easily, but it's certainly very interesting that the last question is phrased in the terms of the metric system, which we should all be familiar with. Otherwise see my book "Measuring the world". It seems a fanciful notion, but a possible reason for the widespread fear of arithmetic specifically, and mathematics in general, could be due to this country's failure to embrace the metric system. It is not my idea, but I'm getting quite convinced by the evidence. Certainly two major countries (UK and USA) which use the metric system only partly (UK) or not at all (USA) perform badly in international comparisons, whereas all other nations use the metric system almost exclusively. The USA would probably do even worse if it were not for the numbers of foreign immigrants (whose parents would have learnt the metric system). For a further discussion of the connection between maths education and the use of the metric system, see http://www.drmetric.com.

Ultimately, then, it would appear that the politicians are trying to treat the symptoms (poor maths performance) rather than the cause (continuing use of a medieval system of units that hinders routine calculations). Yet the solution is well within their grasp. By making life difficult for prospective teachers, who will only get to hate maths even more, the hate and fear will be passed on to the next generation without end. Politicians can start by metricating the roads. You know it makes sense!

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Website revised by John Austin, 9/2/2015. © Enigma Scientific Publishing, 2015.