Matt Parker is a renowned stand-up comedian and maths author, with a popular YouTube channel attracting almost one million subscribers. Originally a maths teacher from Australia, Matt now lives and works in the UK. His new book, Humble Pi, is a Number 1 Bestseller.
Following Matt’s recent appearance on Pearson’s The Right Angle Podcast, Subject Lead and Podcast Host Nicola Woodford-Smith, reflects on their discussion and shares learnings on ways that teachers can foster a passion for maths among learners – not least by encouraging acceptance of mistakes and failures.
In the recent The Right Angle episode, Matt discussed how after spending four years in the classroom as a maths teacher, he does miss it. He tells us how whenever he starts a new project, there is a little bit of his brain working in the background thinking, how could I have used this as a teacher?
That’s how Matt came to pitch a book to his publisher about maths failures and mistakes, and thankfully they were keen. For starters, everyone loves a tale of disaster, and the learnings we can take from it!
Thinking about how the book relates back to teaching, the truth is that everyone is bad at maths the first time they try it. This message is so important and universal, yet too many students disengage from the subject without internalising it. To learn to love maths, we need to embrace the power and significance of failure, in ourselves as well as others.
The case of the drained lake…
Throughout Humble Pi, Matt dove into maths on a practical level, sharing real-world examples of how things have gone wrong through mathematical errors. At the same time, the book offers a plethora of answers to the questions of why we need to understand maths, and why maths matters.
One of my favourite examples is the story of someone who accidentally drained an entire lake of water after miscalculating where to drill a mine. If we don’t pay attention and learn to love maths, then all kinds of things can go awry.
Everyone is bad at maths – until they learn
One of the main foundations for maths comes in learning from our mistakes. Some maths learners often think that because there is a right or a wrong answer, they will never consistently get that right answer, and this puts them off trying. But maths is all about learning and discovering, finding our way through.
Mistakes are how we learn, after all. They are never a failure, or something to be avoided – they’re to be embraced.
Keeping the passion alive
Encouraging students through failure – inspiring them to get and stay engaged – is part of the battle in maths classrooms the world over. Half the job of being a teacher is convincing the students who don’t want to be there that they really do, and that the subject is worth their time.
With this in mind, it’s important for teachers to remember why they got into the maths game in the first place, in order to generate and spread that joy among students. If teachers can keep that spark alive in themselves, convincing students to stay engaged will be all the easier (it’ll also be more fun to teach).
It is so easy to stop doing any personal learning around maths when you work as a teacher, a missed opportunity. Not suggesting teachers ought to obsessively focus on maths around the clock, inside and outside school, more that, by taking moments here and there to remind ourselves why maths is so amazing – connecting with the learning and discoveries for ourselves – we can hugely transform the impact we have during lessons.
Teachers might reconnect with their maths-loving selves by picking up a Rubik’s cube or other cryptic challenges, doing recreational maths puzzles with friends, or seeking out new resources that pique their interest. They could sign up to MathsJam for a chance to get together in the student-free zone of the pub, making new social connections, and sharing what interests them in mathematics – for recreation, not research. There are MathsJam events taking place in 100 cities worldwide, on the second-to-last Tuesday of every month.
If we want to encourage a passion for maths among students, then it’s crucial we keep the passion alive ourselves, keep welcoming mistakes, and keep drawing attention to the brilliant world around maths. It’s what keeps the subject exciting, and what will fuel the interest of learners for generations to come.
Listen to Matt Parker’s The Right Angle podcast episode here, or wherever you get your podcasts.
For more information on Matt Parker, visit www.standupmaths.com or follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @StandUpMaths
Follow Pearson on Twitter: @PearsonSchools and @EmporiumMaths