Mathematics in the News

Tuesday 24 April 2007 at 7:11 pm | In Articles | 11 Comments

Today the BBC reports two stories about mathematics

“I did maths at school and for one year at university but I don’t think I was ever very good at it – and some people would say it shows,” Mr Brown laughed.

I wish he hadn’t laughed (was that due to guilt?) but in his defence he has probably studied mathematics to a higher level than most politicians. It should also be noted that he was educated in Scotland where the first year of university is the equivalent to the last year of school in England and Wales (and so is more like the US system). So he is likely to have studied mathematics to A level standard.

Pupils are being discouraged from taking A-level maths as schools in England chase higher places in the league tables, scientists have claimed.

The Royal Society of Chemistry said that as maths was a difficult subject, schools feared examination failures which would threaten their standings.

Of course the DES totally miss the point when they say

The Department for Education and Skills said more pupils were studying maths.

More than what? Such is the pressure of those league tables that I can totally believe this story. I wonder sometimes if we shouldn’t rename this country Wonderland and then find an Alice who can make sense of it all.


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  1. Hello: Apropos of Gordon Brown’s comments, acclaimed British mathematician Ian Stewart gives advice to young math students this week in a post at the Britannica Blog (“Letters to a Young Mathematician”). Go to and click on “Blog.”

    Next week he’ll be blogging on his new book, “Why Beauty is Truth: A History of Symmetry.” He also blogged on number symbolism a couple weeks ago, in honour of Friday the 13th. Interesting posts…

    Comment by T. Pappas — Wednesday 25 April 2007 1:41 pm #

  2. \random: I’ve met the guy! Although it was nothing to do with maths- just bumped into him whilst visiting the HoC and asked for a photo! :D

    Anyhow, I think league tables should be scrapped. I think most people laugh when they say they’re ‘not good a maths’, because they’re not comfortable saying it. I mean I know when I’m not in my zone I tend to make a lame joke or laugh at things, to get back into the comfort zone.

    Do you think that the Scottish maths education system is better than the English one?

    Comment by beans — Saturday 28 April 2007 4:22 pm #

  3. Do you think that the Scottish maths education system is better than the English one?

    That’s a very interesting question so if anyone has experience of both systems please do let us have your thoughts.

    Comment by Steve — Saturday 28 April 2007 5:23 pm #

  4. I think that people interested by maths decrease constantly. Maths interest decrease too because students do not feel that maths will help them in the future.

    Comment by Maths — Friday 18 May 2007 7:46 pm #

  5. Many people–including politicians, don’t see the practical use in upper level math classes. Who needs to practice intergrals if you’re going to be a taxi driver? But they neglect the fact that studying math trains the brain to think logically–a skill that goes far beyond the math classroom.


    Comment by Boulder Math Tutor — Monday 21 May 2007 9:12 pm #

  6. No, Ed, it doesn’t. Not currently. I have studied Maths for 2 years at uni now, and it’s a joke. A bleak, depressing joke.

    I would advise most kids to drop Maths. I used to love it, but in 2 years I’ve had all my enthusiasm worked out of me by a course that simply wants memorisation. That’s why people are turning away from Maths. I’ve not had to think for myself in two years, now. Memorisation is easier to teach and test, so that’s what gets taught most places, simple, mindless regurgitation of facts. It’s this kind of teaching that needs to be addressed.

    Comment by Richard — Tuesday 22 May 2007 5:39 pm #

  7. Richard – that sounds awful. Assuming that it’s not just the mid-degree blues that you are suffering from (a not uncommon phenomenon) perhaps you could say more? Doesn’t your university encourage you to read further round the subject, explore what you’ve learnt, apply it to other interesting topics or even just talk about it perhaps to postgrads? Don’t they put on talks on areas that you don’t cover in normal lectures, inviting interesting external speakers? Is there a maths soc?

    In short, mathematics can require a lot of mind-numbing toil but a good maths department encourages you to want to learn more. But in the end it is down to the student to do the exploration.

    Comment by steve — Tuesday 22 May 2007 6:04 pm #

  8. I have had mid-degree blues since week 2.

    Encourage to read? No. In my two years, I’ve had one book recommended.
    Explore? No. Anything that deviates off the course is WRONG.
    Talk to postgrads? Not a chance
    Maths Soc? HA! AS IF! In fact we only have about 7 socs in the entire uni, and a lot of sports clubs.
    Talks? Nope, non of these, either.

    I know it’s down to the student, but when the subject is so basically taught with a few handouts and very basic look-what-I’ve-written-down lectures, with no interaction with students, than there’s a problem. I don’t want to say which uni *cough*NTU*cough*, but it offers only the very minimum stuff, which to be fair, might be what some people are after.

    It’s much easier to give the class a mock almost exactly like the exam so students can memorise it, than it is to engage and inspire students. Looks better in figures, too, I imagine.

    I didn’t turn up for three weeks once. They didn’t notice.

    Comment by Richard — Friday 25 May 2007 1:36 am #

  9. It sounds as if the course is not the one for you. Have you ever thought about transferring to another university? There’s one down the road from you, which in my day (ahem a long time ago) had a superb maths department. Why not go and talk to them?

    Comment by Steve — Friday 25 May 2007 9:56 am #

  10. Do you think that the Scottish education system is better than the English one?
    1. The average class size was 26 in S1 and 25 in S2.
    2. The average English class size was 26 both in S1 and in S2 classes.

    Comment by caiden — Thursday 16 October 2008 5:56 am #

  11. the level of education in UK is shameful, wut we learn in India in year 5 you dont learn that in year 11, u dont even have to learn any formulae, the other subjects leve is also very low, esp physics, biology, it is embarassing

    Comment by Maths lover — Wednesday 28 January 2009 2:36 pm #

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