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

Numberphile: Pi Million Subscribers

It’s incredible to see a channel dedicated entirely to maths reach this quite frankly ridiculous number of subscribers – congratulations Numberphile!! If you haven’t seen it yet check out the many famous faces, including yours truly at 1:27…

Residencia de Estudiantes, Madrid

This week I had the honour of speaking at the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, which has previously hosted Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Salvador Dali and Igor Stravinsky amongst many, many others.

IMG_20191112_145038

Ahead of the event I was asked a few questions by the organisers, and here are my answers.

Without revealing all your talk: could you give us an idea about how maths can help to be better at sports? 

From calculating the perfect placement of a penalty kick in football to maximise your chance of scoring, to identifying the best location on Earth to try to break a world record, maths can be used to help to improve our performance in almost any sport. The difficultly lies in writing down the correct equations, but once we have them, maths has the answers.

Can you tell us any real example of this maths application?

My favourite example is one that will be featured in my talk: if attempting to break a world record in rowing, the best place to do so is on the equator. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but as I will explain, by changing the location to the equator you can increase performance by up to 8%, which for an elite athlete is an incredible boost!

In your opinion: what makes maths so useful in different sports context?

Maths can be applied to anything. This is one of the main reasons that I love the subject and travel the world championing its versatility. Given a situation in any sport, you can always use equations to describe what is happening. This might be how a tennis ball moves through the air, or the aerodynamics of a swimmer gliding through the water. Once you have the equations, maths allows you to solve them for the optimal solution, which can then be translated into improved performance by changing your technique appropriately.

You also explain that the mathematical results in sports may vary, how?  In which way? What should athletes take into account?

The ideas discussed in my talk are aimed at professional athletes who are already performing at a very high level and therefore need to resort to other approaches to improve performance beyond increased practice. For amateur athletes, whilst the same ideas will still be applicable, they are much more likely to benefit from practice!

What is your personal experience with sports? Have you ever used “math tricks” for optimise your scores?

The idea for the talk came from wanting to combine my two main passions: mathematics and sport. I play football regularly and as the designated penalty taker for my team have ample opportunity to try to hit the mathematically calculated perfect position for a shot. I also run marathons where my knowledge of the history (and mathematically predicted future) of the world record helps me to appreciate my accomplishments in the event.

IMG_20191112_145340

How did you become a math communicator? 

My first taste of maths communication came during my undergraduate degree at Oxford, where I joined the maths outreach group “Marcus’ Marvellous Mathemagicians”. The group was named after Marcus du Sautoy and performed interactive talks and workshops on his behalf in schools across the UK. The next opportunity came during my PhD when I spent two months working with the “Naked Scientists” team in Cambridge to produce a weekly science radio programme for the BBC. I enjoyed the placement so much that I agreed to join the team full-time upon completion of my PhD. After one year of working in radio production, I began to realise that my true calling was in video, and “Tom Rocks Maths” was born.

How are outreach, teaching and research connected in your professional life?

As someone who came from a state school background and worked extremely hard to get to Oxford, I have always had a passion for outreach and the drive to make university accessible to all. My maths communication work is an extension of this, allowing me to not only to visit schools in deprived areas to try to inspire them to consider higher education, but also to encourage the general public to engage more with the subject of maths and to no longer be afraid of numbers.

The teaching role fits perfectly with maths communication as both roles require the ability to be able to explain difficult concepts in ways that can be understood by a given audience. For a public lecture, the mathematical ability of the audience is perhaps less than that of a class of undergraduates, but the need for clear communication remains the same. In this way, I find that each role complements the other perfectly, with many of the topics that my students find difficult providing inspiration for future video ideas.

What do you enjoy most in your outreach talks? 

There is nothing I enjoy more than being able to present to a live audience. Whilst I enjoy all aspects of my outreach work – YouTube, television, radio, writing – nothing beats the thrill of speaking to a room full of people who want to hear what you have to say. The small interactions with each individual member of the audience, whether through eye contact or answering a question, remain with me long after the event and act as one of my main motivations to continue with my work.

You are not the speaker one might expect when thinking about a maths communicator, what kind of reactions have you find in this sense? Do you have any anecdote regarding this? 

There are two ways of looking at this: first, the notion of a stereotypical mathematician is outdated and from my experience not representative of a large part of the demographic; and second, I hope that by putting myself forward as a public face of mathematics I can help others who may be thinking that they can’t be a mathematician just because of the way that they look.

In terms of anecdotes, I think it best that I point you in the direction of the comments on my YouTube videos…

In particular, what are the reactions with “Equations stripped”? How did you come up with the idea of this series?

The “Equations Stripped” is possibly my favourite of all of the things that I do because it helps to tackle the idea that maths should be serious. The concept of the videos came from thinking about this opinion and trying to come up with what I thought was the best way to present the subject as anything but serious. The result is me talking about maths in my underwear!

My role with the “Naked Scientists” also played a part, as the name would often lead to listeners (or even guests) suggesting that we should all be naked when recording the show, and of course being a radio programme no-one could prove or disprove the theory! I always thought that we should have had more fun with this concept, and when “Tom Rocks Maths” was launched Naked Maths seemed like the way to go!

WordPress.com.

Up ↑