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

YouTube Star ‘Rocks’ Math (Schwetzingen Newspaper)

“30kg of plastic has been found in a blue whale’s stomach: how much would that be if a person swallowed just as much proportional to their own bodyweight?” Tom Crawford from Oxford began his guest lecture at Hebel-Gymnasium with this question. The students calculated that you’d find six (empty) plastic shopping bags in a human stomach. The other results worked out over the course of the entertaining presentation were also very impressive.

Tom Crawford doesn’t just have rock music as a hobby, rather with his tattoos and piercings, he looks like a rockstar too – though his tattoos are all to do with maths: since for example, the decimal places of “e” (Euler’s number) wind around his arm, the number pi is also encoded in an infinite series. On his YouTube channel “Tom rocks maths”, he presents science in an entertaining way – sometimes even pieces of clothing fly off during stripteases: “I want to show that maths isn’t always just super serious but it can also be fun.”

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The mathematics lecturer is currently part of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum in Heidelberg. This is where the best maths and computer scientists in the world are meeting up with junior researchers and journalists. Crawford came to Schwetzingen at the invitation of maths teacher Birgit Schillinger. He brought along some exciting questions. The common theme was Tom’s favourite number, pi, which is used in so many formulas. How many ping pong balls are needed to lift the sunken Titanic off the ground? Which factors are involved when a footballer bends a ball so that it flies in an arc past the wall into the goal? When calculating the trajectory, several physical variables play a role. But how? Crawford studied the mathematics behind it. His doctoral thesis was on fluid mechanics: What path does a river take when it flows into the sea? The findings help us to understand sea pollution and possibly help to stop it.

At the end, the Hebelians made Platonic solids, of which, amazingly, there are only five. Strange? No, Tom explains this number by the sum of the angles at the corners – all very logical! Finally a student’s question, which example in mathematics has impressed Tom the most: “It is terrific how the wave characteristic of light follows from Maxwell’s equations, which deal with electricity and magnetism, with only the help of mathematics. Maths is just awesome!”

Birgit Schillinger

Thanks to Cameron Bunney for the translation.

The original article in Schwetzingen can be found here.

Struggling to engage your students with maths? Think outside the box…

New guidance, released by Pearson, says: If we want to tackle maths anxiety in Britain, we have to change the negative perceptions and experiences that so many learners have when it comes to maths. In this blog, Dr Tom Crawford, maths tutor at the University of Oxford, shares his take on the out-of-the-box approaches to help engage young people with the subject, spark curiosity and inspire life-long interest in maths.

Maths is boring, serious and irrelevant to everyday life – at least according to the results of my survey amongst friends, students and colleagues working in education. This isn’t necessarily something new, but it does highlight one of the current issues facing maths education: how do we improve its image amongst society in general?

With ‘Tom Rocks Maths’ my approach is simple: improve the image of maths by combatting each of the three issues identified above, and do it as creatively as possible…

Tackling “Maths is boring”

The misconception that maths is a boring subject often develops from maths lessons at school.  Due to the extensive curriculum, teachers do not have the time to explore topics in detail, and in many cases, resort to providing a list of equations or formulae that need to be memorised for an exam.

My attempted solution is to do the hard work for them by creating curiosity-driven videos that explain mathematical concepts in exciting and original ways. Take the example of Archimedes Principle – a concept that explains why some objects are able to float whilst others sink – a key part of the secondary school curriculum. It’s perhaps not the most engaging topic for teenagers with no interest in weight regulations for maritime vehicles. But, if instead the topic were presented as part of a video answering the question ‘how many ping-pong balls would it take to raise the Titanic from the ocean floor?’ then maybe we can grab their attention.

Generating curiosity-driven questions such as these is not always easy, but the core concept is to present the topic as part of the answer to an interesting question that your audience simply has to know the answer to.

When teaching my second-year undergraduate students about Stokes’ Law for the terminal velocity of an object falling through a fluid, we discuss the question ‘how long would it take for Usain Bolt to sink to the bottom of the ocean?’ – something I think almost everyone wants to know the answer to! (Don’t worry you can watch the video to find out).

Tackling “Maths is irrelevant to everyday life”

Of all of the issues facing maths in society at the moment, this is perhaps the one that annoys me the most. The majority of people that I speak to who don’t like maths will tell me that it’s the ‘language of the universe’ and can be used to describe pretty much anything, but yet they almost always go on to say how they stopped trying to engage with it because it simply doesn’t apply to them. This is what we mathematicians call a contradiction.

To try to tackle this issue, I go out of my way to present as large a range of topics as possible from a mathematical viewpoint. This has seen me discuss the maths of dinosaurs, the maths of Pokémon and the maths of sport to name but a few. Throughout 2018, my weekly ‘Funbers’ series with BBC radio examined the ‘fun facts about numbers that you didn’t realise you’ve secretly always wanted to know’, where each week a new number would be discussed alongside an assortment of relevant facts from history, religion and popular culture. When working with the BBC, I was very insistent that the programmes were introduced as a ‘maths series’ to help listeners to make the connection between maths and everyday life.

Tackling “Maths is too serious”

At first this surprised me. I’d never personally thought of my subject as ‘serious’ and speaking to my friends and colleagues, they seemed equally perplexed. But then it hit me. Looking at maths and mathematicians from the outside, where you cannot understand the intricate details and beautiful patterns, calling the subject ‘serious’ is a very valid response. There are endless rules and regulations that must be followed for the work to make sense, and most people working in the field can come across as antisocial or introverted to an outsider, which is where I come in.

To try to show that maths isn’t as serious as many people believe, and just to have some plain old fun, I created my persona as the ‘Naked Mathematician’. This began with the ‘Equations Stripped’ video series on YouTube, where I strip-back some of the most important equations in maths layer by layer, whilst also removing an item of my clothing at each step until I remain in just my underwear. As well as providing an element of humour to the videos (as no mention is made of the increasing lack of clothing), the idea is that by doing maths in my underwear it shows that it does not have to be taken as seriously as many people believe.

I have also seen an added benefit of this approach in attracting a new audience that otherwise may not have had any interest in learning maths – from my perspective I really don’t care why people are engaging with the subject, so long as they have a good experience which they will now associate with mathematics.

Whilst I am aware that my approach to tackling the issues faced by mathematics in society may not be to everyone’s tastes, our current methods of trying to engage people with maths are not working, so isn’t it about time we tried thinking outside of the box?

The original article published by Pearson is available here.

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