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Mathematics: a cruel and unusual punishment

By Chris Smith

Keeper of hens, wearer of hiking boots, teacher of maths. Chris, a long time humanist of many groups over the years, is also a Uganda Humanist Schools trustee and a strong advocate of education both here and abroad. In this brief article she talks us through the prickly subject of loving maths.

I have three life-time achievements that have become boasts. My maths degree, from a standing start, with no family member having been educated beyond school leaving age, if that, and an upbringing on a council estate, in the North of England… is not one of them.

I was 13 and had passed the 11+ exam. I got a scholarship to a Direct Grant Grammar School (a type of selective secondary school in the UK that existed between 1945 and 1976). The maths teacher introduced differential calculus on the chalk board, with its delta x’s and delta y’s, with the delta x’s tending to zero, as they do... “Put your hand up if you followed that?” Mine was the only hand. There it was, the pleasure of being taught a subject that came naturally to me, albeit needing a lot of application.

With a degree and a teaching qualification my work path was clear. Now in my sixteenth year of retirement, I still teach maths, and still surprise people when they realise on meeting me that 'Chris Smith' is Christine, not Christopher! Having been in co-education, I was not even aware that maths was supposed to be a boys’ subject. This may have been one of the first prejudices I came across.

I am too often told: "I was rubbish at maths", "I hated maths", "My maths teacher hated me", "There was a clash of personalities". My response to that last one was that if any maths teacher has a personality it is removed during training. That didn’t help! Then there was: "I don’t understand". My excellent Head of Department would explain: "Maths is as clear as MUD, where Memory and Doing are the bridge that supports the Understanding". I doubt we were ever believed, but maths is a subject which can be learned by rote (see below). Another wise saying was that there are two high stress subjects in secondary school: maths and physical education. I disliked and feared the latter. Parental lack of confidence feeds maths insecurity and nothing is helped by politicians and the like saying how bad they were at the subject, "But look how well I am doing now", nor by the recent edict to repeat and repeat the 16+ qualification if it is not “passed” first time. There are plenty of alternative qualifications which may be far more suitable for some students.

Sometimes I get: "I loved Maths", "We had a great teacher", "I did A level", "My children love maths". But not often. Answers to maths questions are (usually) right or wrong. That can be joyous or frightening. When time allows, a knowledgeable teacher will praise the method – yes, "Show your working" – pointing out an arithmetic or transcription error, or see one of the expected difficulties. A wrong answer which is wrong in a new way, avoiding the usual elephant traps, is a delight. It can be interesting to investigate, and a novel challenge to address.

Teaching can be fun. My face may look severe but I switch it off when I am thinking. I'm telling you this just in case you meet me and ask me a question!

And the three lifetime achievements, for readers who have been paying attention? Giving up smoking, front crawl with breathing, and being able to make myself understood in spoken French. But I still think mental arithmetic should be classified as a cruel and unusual punishment, and that is not going to change now.

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