How do you engage a maths-phobe quickly?
17 March 2016
Imagine you've just met somebody and you have two minutes to get them interested in maths. What would you do?
A couple of days ago I faced this challenge when I was invited onto BBC Radio 5Live to talk about the state of maths education in the UK. I really like 5 Live, it's my Saturday afternoon radio channel of choice, but I've been interviewed there several times to talk about maths, and it has always been quite a challenge. The sportiness of the channel means the presenters can often lean towards a slightly laddish attitude to maths, of the "whoosh, too complicated for me mate" variety.
But this time I struck gold, by doing a think of a number trick. It was a simple one but it has the merit that it requires no visual aids and so can be done on radio. Think of a number...double it...add 10...divide by two...now take away the number you first thought of. And now....drum roll...I can sense the energy...you and most of your listeners have ended on the number five. Am I right? (I was.) Palpable excitement in the studio, and I followed it with another think of a number old chestnut (at least for those of us in the maths world) that ended with me predicting a Kangaroo from Denmark. More laughter in the studio, and when I signed off I had warm thanks from the producer who said they'd all been playing along in the production room.
I have a hierarchy of ways of drawing in a maths-anxious audience quickly. It goes as follows:
1. Magic (after think of a number tricks come classics like 1089 and some lovely card tricks - but alas these don't work on radio)
2. Arithmetical shortcuts (fingers for doing the nine times table, how to multiply by 11 in your head etc - again, these don't work on radio).
3. Everyday maths tips and curiosities (did you know that if you're mediocre at darts it's generally better to aim at 14 rather than at 20? etc etc)
4. Games (favourite examples of mine are 'Play Your Cards Right' and Nim games like 'Twenty')
Of course it still has to be the right magic, games and puzzles, presented in the right way. A trick that isn't explained remains a trick, leaving maths as a mystery. A game where you lose every time just reinforces the impression that you're hopeless at maths. And a puzzle where the person setting it goes away with a smug grin just leaves those who can't do it wanting to do a Jeremy Clarkson.
But if we're going to force every teenager in this country to pursue maths to the age of 18, we're going to need to sugar the pill. And magic, everyday curiosities, games and puzzles will play a very important part in that.