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The Importance of Humour in Maths

No laughter in maths lessons? That's a problem.

This year I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of humour in maths.  Why? Because I believe that humour is an essential part of creativity. 

About 50 years ago, Arthur Koestler wrote a book called the Act of Creation, and in that book he said that creativity manifests itself in three ways: Art, Discovery and Humour.  Somebody else reduced this to three shorter words: Creativity is Ah, Aha and Haha.  I love those three words, because I think they are a quick way to spot that creativity is happening, whether that’s in everyday life or in maths lessons.  If a lesson has included no moments of Ah, Aha or Haha then whatever else it has achieved, I would suggest it has not involved any creativity.

My eldest daughter has just taken her GCSEs, so this year I’ve taken a closer interest than normal in the maths that teenagers are expected to do in preparation for their exams.  What has struck me is how little humour there is in GCSE maths questions.  A teacher recently confided to me that she’d once been a GCSE exam setter, and she’d found that any humour she put into questions, in the form of puns or amusing product names, tended to get removed.  The reason for this is (I was told) that exams should avoid arousing 'emotional reactions' in students – and of course it wouldn’t be right for some students to burst out laughing during an exam, or to start crying because of a poignant story linked to simultaneous equations.  Though presumably the emotional reaction of ‘Oh my god, this question is so unrealistic that it makes me angry’ is deemed acceptable.

Anyway, I can understand that humour in exam questions could be misconstrued.  Exams aren’t there to entertain.  Unfortunately, this can have unintended consequences.  In the two years building up to GCSE my daughter's maths lessons were almost entirely dedicated to practising GCSE exam questions.  Maths became a dry series of tasks, with little sense of a twinkle in the eye of the examiner that says: ‘I know this question has a really contrived storyline, but have a go anyway.’  I asked my daughter if she ever laughed during a maths lesson in Year 10 or Year 11?  Her reply:  “No, not once.”

For our Maths Inspiration shows [see] we have a pool of about twenty maths presenters.  Almost all of us have had the benefit of some coaching from Chris Head, who is a stand up comedy coach.  That’s not because we all want to become standup comedians, it’s because comedians know how to deliver a message in such a way that it can create surprise, intrigue, and of course, laughter.  It’s amazing how content that seems dull can be livened up by little changes to the storyline, or a tweak to the order in which information is revealed.

I am not suggesting that maths lessons should be a laugh a minute.  And of course maths can still be very rewarding without needing any jokes.  But I do think that for students who don’t love algebra or geometry or statistics, a touch of humour can sweeten the pill, and send a message of empathy that yes – we know you might be finding this hard, but we’re human too.