1 Comment »Posted on Wednesday 14 January 2009 at 3:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Mathematics

What is it about roundup posts that bring out the puns in me? I think that even science doesn’t have an answer for that one. Have some maths-related nuggets:

Maths failures cost the UK £2.4bn a year

Accounting firm KPMG has found that children who are bad at maths end up costing UK taxpayers up to £2.4bn a year. KPMG say that children who struggle with maths at school are more likely to be unemployed, and claim more benefits whilst paying less tax.

The Every Child a Chance trust is asking businesses to raise £6m in an effect to raise child numeracy. John Griffith-Jones, chairman of both the trust and KPMG, says that the charity has developed a nationwide plan, in which businesses will make annual contribution of £12,000 each to local schools for three years.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families responded to the report, saying:

“Let’s be clear: the picture in maths is a positive one…we are leading Europe in maths and science at age 14 and we have risen 11 places in international league tables since 2003 to seventh place.

“Of course there is more we can do and catch up and stretch classes will ensure those falling behind get the additional support they need whilst those who excel are kept motivated.”

Should we be teaching the odds? Probably

Professor David Spiegelhalter of the University of Cambridge believes that children need to be taught “risk literacy” – a knowledge of statistics and probability to help them make important decisions in their adult life.

Speaking to the Times, Prof Spiegelhalter said that risk was “as important as learning about DNA, maybe even more important,” because the human mind has a tendency to latch on to “improbable” coincidence that often turn out to be very possible.

I often point this out to people when unlikely occurrences crop up with this example: if an event has a million to one chance of occurring in a given day, and the population of the UK is about 60 million, then 60 “million to one chances” happen up and down the country daily! The maths doesn’t quite work like that, but it’s a close enough approximation.

As such, I completely agree that ideas about risk should be taught in the classroom. We might then avoid stories such as “beer gives you cancer“, from a couple of weeks back.

Maths: an ideal subject for the lazy

This Times interview with Marcus du Sautoy, the new Oxford University professor for the public understanding of science, is worth a read in general, but I noticed a quote that particularly resonated with me:

Maths, according to du Sautoy, is the ideal subject for anybody who is lazy or has a bad memory (because if you forget something, you can work it out from first principles): “If you do maths, you can get away with hardly doing any work at school and winging it in exams.

This is a notion that I suspect many mathematicians secretly harbour: once you have a grasp of the basics, maths is actually not that hard. Being able to work stuff out from first principles has got me out of a number of tricky exam situations. Another old favourite is starting a problem from both the beginning working forward, and the end working backwards, in the hope that the two sets of calculations will meet up in the middle and save you the trouble of figuring out the problem in the first place!

Of course, there are downsides. Now that I’m on a course full of set readings and essays, I’m dreading actually having to learn and remember facts – I’m not sure I know how!


  1. One Comment

  2. Yeh , but I heard you can get cancer from eating ants

    By Tim Jones on Thursday 15 January, 2009 at 12:36 am

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