This is an article about maths. Don’t run screaming out the door you might still be in your pyjamas. Be reassured, this article is pain free.
Maths skills have declined in Australia. Julia Gillard is worried. Kevin Rudd’s worried. I’m really worried. The government is currently throwing money about: $30 Billion here and $15 Billion there. I just hope they can count that high!
Meanwhile, how do we get kids interested in maths? Unfortunately, many adults grow up believing that maths is a form of torture equivalent to being water-boarded in alphabet soup, that maths texts involve 350 pages of Sudoku in Swahili and that maths teachers are as lively as a lamppost on Valium. Why? I suspect, in part, it is because maths is a deadly serious subject at school.
School kids get to eat food in 12 different languages (I wanted to do German just to eat Black Forest Cake), read Harry Potter in English, travel to the zoo in science, make papier-mâché volcanoes in geography that spew stuff out the top and read cool stories about blood and guts spilling everywhere in Ancient History. But, too often, maths is a sober and sensible subject.
When I mention to folk that I was a maths teacher for 10 years and then a humour writer for the next 25 years (Don’t do the maths!), they don’t believe me. It is a rule, apparently, that you never laugh in maths unless it is at a kid falling off their chair. Besides, from Year 7 on kids start moaning ‘why do we have to do maths, Miss, I’ll never use it?’ They have a point. No one has ever run up to me in the supermarket and asked ‘Can you help me find x? I’ve lost it.’ You can live a full and rich life without ever finding x.
And sometimes maths questions are plain dumb. If a goat is tethered to a peg on a rope 5m long what area will it graze? Who cares? You don’t calculate the area grazed- you idiot! – you just move the bloody goat.
The upshot of this don’t-wanna-know attitude to maths is that people today don’t question numbers they read in the media. We’ve become Maths Zombies. We leave the number crunching to someone else. Yet numbers rule our lives. The Government Preventative Health Taskforce, for instance, recently claimed that obesity cost Australia $58.2 billion a year. O Dear! There’ll be more ‘Life be in it” Frisbees whizzing our way again. But wait. I looked at the report. Direct costs were $8.3 Billion. $49.9 billion was for ‘the impact of obesity on quality of life.’ The what? Is it for wear and tear on the couch? Hardly. It’s a load of fairy floss. This isn’t Einstein maths. It’s about paying attention.
I haven’t called on my maths know-how that often while writing humour. When Russell Crowe starred in ‘A Beautiful Mind’, a film about Noble winning-mathematician John Nash, I pointed out that one of the equations seen on a window was wrong. It concerned the mysterious pi. There were so many letters to the editor on pi, on the third day, an editorial announced ‘We know a lot of you out there know a lot about pi. But from now on could you keep it to yourselves.’ A small triumph.
Another time, I read in a women’s mag that the female orgasm was 8 seconds. ‘Oh!’ I thought or, maybe, ‘Ooooooooh! I’ll do the maths.’ If a girl did it every night – Ha! Ha! – for 30 years and she was blessed with her full 8 seconds worth – More laughter! - do you know what she would get? One days worth of ‘Oooooh!’ 30 years effort for one big-bang! Is it worth the effort?
Nevertheless, I’ve combined my nutty-professor love of maths with my off-the-wall humour in a fun, media-savvy maths blog called mathspig. (http://mathspig.wordpress.com). It’s a resource to help teachers make maths a funorama for kids and support those teachers that already do it.
I believe kids can learn maths like they learn IT skills by just ploughing in and having a go. If they run into trouble then they might have to back track a little. The key is motivation. If kids aren’t motivated to do maths you may as well try to belt x, y and z into their skulls with a rolled-up newspaper. But I think kids of all ages would like to know how long it would take a Tiger to eat their school principal or work out a mathematical scale for boredom!
I wouldn’t have mentioned MY BLOG except for the fact it was recently sighted in The Times (UK) on line. So, I’m coming out of the sty. I’m mathspig and I’m as happy a pig in shxt. (Find x.)
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times (29/4/09) and the Illawarra Mercury (27/4/09)
Pic 1: Mathspig as young maths teacher in the Buckley Park High School magazine in the 70′s before turning to the darkside (ie Humour). Ever consistent I said my hobbies were ‘ long distance crawling and part-time child extermination.’
Pic 2: Ancient Maths text used by mathspig in the classroom.