Making Maths look Cool

By    John Garner on  Wednesday, August 16, 2006
Summary: The reason I changed from 'not liking maths' to appreciating how useful it can be, was due to a more appropriate teaching method. What I should first confess is that I don’t like the way maths is taught in France. I spent most of my later schooling years in France. I left England when I […]

The reason I changed from 'not liking maths' to appreciating how useful it can be, was due to a more appropriate teaching method.

What I should first confess is that I don’t like the way maths is taught in France. I spent most of my later schooling years in France. I left England when I was 12 and came to live in France where maths is considered 'the' criteria of intelligence.
Maths is not really taught to students in France it is used to filter people in to groups of intelligent and less intelligent people. It goes so far that very few engineers, Directors/CEOs and even politicians will go places unless they are good at maths. A job in France without the appropriate educational credentials means it is hard to get noticed. Creativity, on the other hand is considered the B-path or C-path as well as all 'art' type studies.

So should one be surprised that maths, set on a pedestal in France, is taught to kids in the most uncreative way imaginable.

Although I don’t have a direct comparison, I left France with a Baccalauréat and studied maths in the UK at University. Now, the way maths was taught in the UK, actually became interesting and suddenly made sense. Why ? Well because of the teaching methods and the real-life examples used.

In France for probabilities and statistics it was numbers and letters and say Tim and Sally were added by the pure creative maths teacher.
Is it a surprise that the real life examples used in the UK helped to see the utility of maths? I was told that Jo had a Garage and he had just purchased a structure next to the garage in order to create a parking lot. Jo had a choice of three different types of lights to use in the parking lot and they each had different probability of breaking after a certain amount of hours and each cost a different amount.
We were asked to calculate which lights would be the cheapest for Jo if he opened the parking a) from Monday to Friday 09h00 till 18h00 b) from Monday to Saturday 06h00 to 20h00 c) etc.

It wasn’t just about the fact that I was in a Business School or that I had recently helped a friend calculate import costs for his clothes shop. I was faced with a real life solution where maths illustrated how useful it was to obtaining the best solution, sorry probably the best solution. My other experience told me that in real life you also need to take into account various other aspects about the company providing the goods; through their track record, reputation etc.

I’m not really sure how maths is taught in other countries but when I was reading an article today about how the Nobel prize winning president of Caltech thanked the Numb3rs TV series actor ‘David Krumholtz’ for making “maths look cool”, it got me thinking about this. The character in Numb3rs played by David Krumholtz uses everyday examples that people can relate with to explain the concepts in maths. The explanation aims at including people, showing how the method works with real-life examples. Sounds familiar to me...

An education program has been started by CBS and Texas Instruments to provide teachers with educational exercises that precede each show. The concept seems pretty interesting and has spawned blogs like the blog from the Northeastern University Department of mathematics.

So will maths teachers (especially in France) take note of this series success ? Could they imagine teaching in a down to earth way that demonstrates the value of maths or will they continue to think that the mad scientist, detached from reality image is better ?

Article written by  John Garner

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