Teaching Mathematics

Following my talk in Madrid in November, I was asked to answer a few questions about the current status of maths teaching based on my experience as a university lecturer. Here are my answers…

How should mathematics be taught in schools?

Through stories. Teaching through story-telling is an incredibly powerful tool and one that is not used enough in mathematics. For example, when teaching trigonometry, rather than just stating the formulae, why not explain WHY they were needed in the first place – by ancient architects trying to construct monuments, by explorers trying to estimate the height of a distant mountain – these are the reasons that mathematics was developed, and I think that teaching it through these stories will help to engage more students with the subject.

Are teachers prepared to teach this subject correctly?

I don’t believe the teachers are at fault – they are told to follow a particular curriculum and due to their heavy workload have no time to develop lessons with engagement at the heart of their design. There are of course ways that we can help teachers, by providing examples of ways to make maths content more interesting and engaging. This can be through story-telling or applications to topics of interest to students such as sport and video games. This is what I try to do with ‘Tom Rocks Maths’, for example see my video teaching Archimedes Principle by answering the question ‘how many ping-pong balls would it take to raise the Titanic from the ocean floor?’.

In your view, how should a math teacher be?

The most important thing is to have passion for the subject. The level of excitement and interest that the teacher demonstrates when presenting a subject will pass on to the students. Just as enthusiasm is infectious, so too is a lack of it. Beyond passion, there is no typical profile of a maths teacher. Anyone can be a mathematician, and it is very important that people don’t feel that they have to conform to a particular stereotype to teach the subject. I have always just been myself, and hopefully as a public figure in mathematics will inspire others to do the same.

Sometimes, this subject becomes more complicated for some students, not so much because of its difficulty, but because of the way in which they have been taught. What should be done with these students?

The trick is to find a way to explain a topic that resonates with a particular group of students. Let me give you an example from my research: the Navier-Stokes Equations (NSEs). For students who have no real interest in mathematics, I would try to get them to engage by explain the $1-million prize that can be won by solving these equations. For students who have more interest in real-world applications such as in Engineering or Biology, I would tell them about how the aerodynamics of a vehicle or the delivery of a drug in the bloodstream rely on an understanding of Fluid Mechanics and the NSEs. If the students are fans of sport, I can explain how the equations are used to explain the movement of a tennis ball through the air, or for testing the perfect formation in road cycling. Finally, for students who are already keen mathematicians, I would explain how the equations work in almost every situation, except for a few extreme cases where they result in ‘singularities’, which as a mathematician are the ones you are most interested in understanding. Once you know the interests of your audience, you can present a topic in a way that will help them to engage with the material.

Can you get to hate math?

It is certainly possible – though of course alien to mathematician such as myself! I think this feeling of ‘hate’ relates back to either the way that you have been taught the subject, or from a lack of understanding. If you did not enjoy your maths lessons at school and harbour ill feelings towards your teacher, then you will begin to develop negative feelings towards the subject. This is not because you dislike the subject, but more because of the way that it was taught to you. Likewise, if you do not understand mathematics then it is very easy to develop a ‘fear’ of the subject, which can quickly turn into hatred due to feelings of inadequacy or stupidity if not addressed. It all comes back to finding a way to approach the subject that fits with the knowledge and experiences that you already have. If you present a problem in an abstract manner of manipulating random numbers to find a given total, then most people will struggle – regardless of their mathematical ability. But the same problem presented in a relatable situation suddenly becomes understandable. Here’s an example:

(a). Using the following numbers make a total of 314: 1, 1, 2, 5, 10, 10, 20, 20, 50, 100, 100, 500.

(b). You go shopping and the total is €3.14. What coins would you use to pay for your items?

They are the same question, but in (a). the problem looks like a maths question, and in (b). it is an everyday situation that people all over the world are used to. Both require the same maths to solve, but even people who ‘hate’ maths could tell you the correct answer to (b). using their own real-life experience.

Women are at a great disadvantage compared to men when entering a STEM career, why do you think this is happening?

First of all, as a man I am certainly not qualified to answer this question, but I will at least try to provide you with my opinion based on personal experience. At high school level I believe that the difference is less severe (eg. see article here) and even at university there is a slightly higher number of females than males studying science-based subjects. BUT, the issue occurs after this. In graduate degree programmes and beyond there is a definite lack of female researchers, and this is amplified even further at more senior level positions. One explanation could be that academic ‘tenure-track’ positions exist for life, and so many of the men that now hold these positions have done so for the past 30-40 years and were employed when we were doing a much worse job of tackling the gender gap. Now that awareness of these issues has increased, and in general we are doing a much better job at addressing them that we were 30 years ago, hopefully we will begin to see more females in leading positions over the coming years, it will just take a little while for the effect to be seen. I also think that in general there are not enough female role models within many subjects (especially maths) that have reached the pinnacle of their field (through no fault of their own), and as such there is a lack of role models for young female researchers. The achievements of female mathematicians such as Maryam Mirzakhani (2014 Fields Medal) and Karen Uhlenbeck (2019 Abel Prize) should be even more celebrated precisely for this reason.

Do you think that enough importance is given to mathematics in the educational world?

In the past perhaps not, but attitudes are certainly changing. With the increased role that technology and algorithms play in our lives, people are beginning to realise that we need to better understand these processes to be able to make informed decisions – and maths is the key to doing this. Employers are certainly aware of the invaluable skillset possessed by a mathematician and as a result more and more students are choosing to study the subject at degree level and beyond to improve their competitiveness in the job market. Ultimately, attitudes are changing for the better, but there is still more that can be done.

In your opinion, what is the best way to teach this subject?

Exactly as I have described in questions 1 and 4. Storytelling is key to making the material as engaging as possible and knowing the interests of your audience allows you to present the subject in a way that will appeal to them most effectively.

What is the current situation of mathematics research in the university?

I think the main issue facing research mathematics is the relatively recent trend of short-term research outcomes. The majority of funding available to mathematicians requires either continuous publication of new results or outcomes that can readily be used in an applied setting.  The issue of continuous publication means that researchers feel the need to publish a new manuscript every few months, which leads to very small advances at each step, and a wealth of time spent writing and formatting an article instead of conducting actual research. In many cases, the work would be much clearer if published as one piece in its entirety after several years of careful work. The drive for short-term research outcomes means that it is now very difficult to study mathematics just for the sake of it – you have to be able to convince your funding body that your work has real-world applications that will be of benefit to society within the next 5-10 years. To show why this is a disaster for maths research, let’s take the example of Einstein and his work on relativity. Now seen as a one of the most fundamental theories of physics, his work had no practical applications until the invention of GPS 60 years later. In today’s short-term outcomes driven market, it is highly unlikely that Einstein’s work would have been funded.

Photo: Residencia de Estudiantes

Maths with a Striptease (Die Rheinpfalz)

Tom “rocks” maths on the internet – lecturer from Oxford arouses enthusiasm with crazy ideas… 

The graduate mathematician Tom Crawford not only has rock music as a hobby, but he also looks like a rock star with his tattoos and piercings. However, some of his tattoos are related to mathematics. For example, the first 100 decimal places of Euler’s number wind around his arm and the number pi has been encrypted as an infinite series. On his Youtube channel “Tom Rocks Maths” he presents science in a fun way – the clothes sometimes fly during a striptease: “I want to show that maths is not always only downright serious, but fun.”

The math lecturer from Oxford came as part of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF) in the Electoral Palatinate. Since there is no Nobel Prize in mathematics, the winners (Latin: laureates) of comparable awards are invited to the HLF. The best math and computer scientists in the world meet here for a week with junior scientists and journalists. Crawford was on the ground as a publicist and presenter, and took the opportunity to speak to some of the awardees. For example, Martin Hairer, who received the Fields Medal for his seminal studies, had an appointment for an interview. In the end, they played Tetris for an hour and talked about “cool math”: “Such a relaxed and profound conversation is only possible at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum,” the Brit enthuses about the inspiring atmosphere at the HLF.

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Tom Crawford was already “packed” in the elementary school of mathematics: “When we were learning multiplication, I did not want to stop working on difficult tasks until late in the evening – it did not feel like work at all.” Even later in high school, he always did math tasks first and gladly. “I was a good student in my eleven subjects, but math was the most fun.” The satisfying thing is, “in maths a result is right or wrong, there is no need to discuss it.”

After studying in Oxford, he went to Cambridge to write his PhD in fascinating  fluid dynamics. “We wanted to model how fluids move and interact with the world. I was excited about the prospect of being able to analyse experiments as a mathematician.” From this, models of reality were developed: what path does a river take when it flows into the sea? The findings help to understand the pollution of the oceans and possibly stop it. During his PhD he worked for the BBC in the science programme “The Naked Scientists”: this meant that the scientists liberated their theories from the complicated “clothes” and reduced them to a comprehensible basis. In this way, a layman will discover “naked” facts – in the sense of comprehensible ones. The radio broadcasts were a great success.”But you also have to visualize maths,” so he started to make his own videos and took the concept of the “naked mathematician” literally. In some lectures, he reveals the equations “layer by layer” and in each stage falls a garment – until Tom remains only in his boxer shorts. And then his tattoos are also visible, on whose mathematical background he will give a lecture in Oxford soon – with many guests guaranteed!

With unusual ideas, the only 29-year-old mathematician arouses the desire and curiosity for his subject. His original internet activities have now been honoured with an innovation prize. Even when attending school in Schwetzingen Tom Crawford had unusual questions: “In the stomach of a blue whale 30 kilos of plastic have been found: How much would that be if a person swallows just as much in relation to their own body weight?” The students calculated that in the human stomach, six (empty) plastic shopping bags would be located. Or, “How many table tennis balls are needed to lift the sunken Titanic off the ground?” And which example impressed him most in mathematics? “It is terrific how Maxwell’s equations, which deal first with electricity and magnetism, follow the wave property of light with the help of mathematics alone. Math is just fantastic! ”

Birgit Schillinger

The original article published in the Die Rheinpfalz newspaper (in German) is available here.

The Heroes of Sir Michael Atiyah

In the final part of my interview with Sir Michael Atiyah – one of his last ever before he passed away – he talks about some of his mathematical heroes, from Einstein and Newton to Brouwer and Michelangelo, including the most beautiful description of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel I’ve ever heard. A true giant of Mathematics, who is sorely missed.

With thanks to the Heidelberg Laureate Forum.

Eureka Magazine

The first 3 articles from my Millennium Problems series have been published in Cambridge University’s Eureka Magazine – one of the oldest recreational mathematics magazines in the world, with authors including: Nobel Laureate Paul Dirac, Fields Medallist Timothy Gowers, as well as Martin Gardner, Stephen Hawking, Paul Erdös, John Conway, Roger Penrose and Ian Stewart. To say I’m excited would be an understatement… (pages 82-84 in case you’re interested).

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Carnival of Mathematics 167

You know you’ve made it as a maths communicator when you have the honour of hosting the Carnival of Mathematics (if you have no idea who I am or what I do then check out this interview for St Hugh’s College Oxford). But, before we get to the Carnival proper, as the creator of ‘Funbers’ I can’t help but kick things off with some fun facts about the number 167:

  • 167 is the only prime number that cannot be expressed as the sum of 7 or fewer cube numbers
  • 167 is the number of tennis titles won by Martina Navratilova – an all-time record for men or women
  • 167P/CINEOS is the name of a periodic comet in our solar system
  • The M167 Vulcan is a towed short-range air defence gun
  • 167 is the London bus route from Ilford to Loughton

Now that we all have a new-found appreciation for the number 167, I present to you the 167th Carnival of Mathematics…

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Reddit’s infamous theydidthemath page tackles ‘fake news’ on Instagram with a quite brilliant response to a post claiming that avoiding eating 1 beef burger will save enough water for you to shower for 3.5 years. Whilst the claim is hugely exaggerated we should still probably stop eating beef…

Next up, Singapore Maths Plus take a light-hearted look at the definition of ‘Singapore Math’ on Urban Dictionary – which is apparently the world’s number one online dictionary (sounds like more ‘fake news’ to me).

Math off the grid jumps in ahead of hosting next month’s Carnival to discuss the book ‘Geometry Revisited’ with a re-examination of the sine function as a tool for proving many fundamental geometric results. Scott Farrar also has the sine bug as he encourages us not to reject imprecise sine waves, but instead to consider the circle that they would form (warning contains a fantastic GIF).

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John D Cook introduces what is now my new favourite game with his explanation of the ‘Soviet Licence Plate Game’. Have a go at the one to the right – can you make the four numbers 6 0 6 9 into a correct mathematical statement by only adding mathematical symbols such as +, -, *, /, ! etc. ? Send your answers to me @tomrocksmaths on Social Media or using the contact form on my website.

If by this point, you’ve had enough of numbers (which apparently happens to some people?!), then here’s a lovely discussion of ‘numberless word problems’ from Teaching to the beat of a different drummer. If that doesn’t take your fancy, how about some group theory combined with poetry via this ridiculous video of Spike Milligan on The Aperiodical

If like me you’re still not really sure what you’ve just watched, then let’s get back to more familiar surroundings with some intense factorial manipulation courtesy of bit-player. What happens when you divide instead of multiply in n factorial? The result is truly mind-blowing.

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Finding our way back to applications in the real world, have you ever wondered how the photo effect called ‘Tiny Planets’ works? Well, you’re in luck because Cor Mathematics has done the hard work for us and created some awesome mini-worlds in the process!

Sticking with the real world, Nautilus talks to Computer Scientist Craig Kaplan who discusses how the imperfections of the real world help him to overcome the limitations of mathematics when creating seemingly impossible shapes. They truly are a sight to behold.

With our feet now firmly planted in reality, let’s take a well-known mathematical curiosity – say the Birthday Problem – and apply it to the 23-man squad of the England men’s football team from the 2018 World Cup. Most of you probably know where this one is going, but it’s still fascinating to see it play out with such a nice example from Tom Rocks Maths intern Kai Laddiman.

The fun doesn’t stop there as we head over to Interactive Mathematics to play with space-filling curves, though Mathematical Enchantments take a more pensive approach as they mourn the death of the tenth Heegner Number.

Focusing on mathematicians, Katie Steckles talks all things Emmy Noether over at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Blog, whilst I had the pleasure of interviewing recent Fields Medal winner Alessio Figalli about what it feels like to win the biggest prize of all…

And for the grand finale, here are some particularly February-themed posts…

The next Carnival of Mathematics will feature mathematical marvels posted online during the month of March, which of course means ‘Pi Day’ and all the madness that follows. Good luck to the next host ‘Math off the grid’ sorting through what will no doubt be an uncountably large number of fantastic submissions!

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