Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Safety In Numbers

If it were possible to do such a thing I would issue a restraining order against maths

Algebra would have to stay 50 metres away from me at all times, Isosceles and Pythagoras would have ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) keeping them indoors at night and long division would only be allowed to visit on the grounds that it brought its own calculator with it. Negative numbers would just be put in front of a firing squad with no last requests.

Maths and I have never got along. Despite all my best efforts I have never memorised my times-tables and I still have to count on my fingers for anything more complicated than six times nine equals forty-two (think about it…and go read The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy books if you still don’t get it)

Thus when I was at school – which, as we have already established, was a long, long time ago – my hands became all to familiar with visits from Mr Ruler and his family as teacher after teacher slapped my knuckles for being so stupid.

We had different coloured wall-charts every month with different sets of times-tables written on in huge marker-pen. The idea of this was that we would gaze at them inbetween reciting the tables by rote and it would somehow wedge into our brains. No SmartBoards and interactive web-page answers from Google for us in those days - the home computer was still an iceage away (infact in my next school there was a lad whose dad worked for IBM - practically promoting the lad to God overnight) - back then the nearest we came to an Interactive Board was using a piece of chalk and a rubber.

But the problem for me has always been that it is not sufficient for me to learn that 7x8 = 56 (I had to get a calculator out for this, but would normally subtract 7 twice from 70 on my fingers) – I have to understand the why of why 7x8 = 56 – and get very frustrated with stuff like algebra, fractions and negative numbers where they keep changing the rules dependant on what you are doing to the numbers.

This was something that my teachers, so ancient that they remembered when Everest was a molehill, could not understand – and so they assumed that it was my inability to learn.

Now I know that when you are young everyone over 20 seems ancient, but I had one teacher at junior school who had taught my mother and uncle years previously. He was of the Old-School Child-Hating Mortar-Board And Cape wearing teacher that you see in history books and always assume to be fictional. I won’t name him here, but he had a famous rugby playing son and was an Evil Bastard with a capital E, B and every other letter in both words. Quite frankly: burning in hell would be a let off as far as I’m concerned.

So there was this one time when I got a sum wrong – just one of many really – but this one particularly sticks in my memory. It was a hot day and a dark classroom with rows of single desks – the old kind with inkwells. He called my surname and summoned me to stand at the front.

Without even looking at me he barked, ‘How many pennies in a pound you stupid boy?’

Now I was pretty sure that it was 100 – but I was scared witless and I didn’t want to look like a know-it-all in front of the class, so in a quavering, uncertain voice I said ‘ninety-nine?’

Still refusing to look at me he called out “tell him the answer’ to the class and they called the answer I had known all along.

Cut ahead some years and you may begin to see why I still had a fear of maths – to the point where every time I heard a maths question part of my brain would shut down. I’m not saying that one incident made all the difference, but it didn’t help – I came out of school with a borderline pass at the lowest level you can enter.

And many people, some of my friends included, remain very bitter about this and spend the rest of their lives complaining that if someone had only spent a bit more time with them it would make all the difference.

And whilst I can be very pessimistic and spend many hours in the company of that inner voice saying "you can't do this" (as most of us do) I also know better – I know that if you spend your whole life stuck in the past and moaning about the fact that you never achieved anything then you only have yourself to blame – so I decided to set out to prove them wrong.

So about 2 years ago I grabbed Maths in a headlock and dragged it kicking and screaming into evening classes. The teacher still couldn’t understand why I couldn’t easily grasp the things that were crystal clear to her, but this time I was old enough and stubborn enough to know that it was her failure as a teacher and not my failure as a student – so bloody well made her explain it again and again and again until I could put it into a language that I could understand.

I came out with the maximum pass I could get in the exam. Maths and I will never be friends, but I’ve got it worried now and on the run!

And the moral of the story is: never let anyone tell you that you are stupid and never be afraid to keep on asking when you don’t understand something. Sometimes knowledge is given, sometimes it seems to arrive by osmosis and sometimes it has to be bludgeoned into your brain - but the best kind of knowledge, the kind you really appreciate - is the kind that you earn for yourself.


Anonymous said...

Well, of course, chap! That's a moral I've learned long ago.

I also don't get along with math, but I haven't forsaken it. I have the same kind of thought process you do (yes, I see the answer, but how did you get to it?), and I've kept meaning to pick up Calculus and Physics for dummies at Barnes and Noble. Because I feel incomplete by ignoring any bridge of traditional learning, and because I'd really like to be able to design games one day (which requires mathematics of the most extreme).

However, I got along with my teachers just fine, it's the other students that inspired my hatred.

And I didn't completely get the 9*6=42 reference, but I remember from the film 42 being the meaning of life or something like that.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Samurai - yes, other students can be a real pain, especially at school. It's not so bad in adult education where people are gererally (albeiet not exclusively) more interested in learning.

OK, i'll go easy on my readers - according to HHG2TG a giant computer was designed called Deep Thought to provide the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything - which turned out to be "42"

They then had to design an even more complicated computer, the Earth, to find the actual question. The closest they get is in the second book - The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe, where they get "What do you get when you multiply six by nine"

I've always thought that Douglas Adams was making a profound statement that, in the end, nothing really makes sense so we should just get on with it as best we can!

raccoonlover1963 said...

I hated math as well. General math was fine, so I thought Algebra would be no problem. WRONG!!! I failed algebra horribly. Now my son is taking it. They don't offer general math in our high school any more. He took pre-algebra in 8th grade, but did not do well. The school said if he didn't do well, they would put him back in general math, but they didn't. They made him stay in pre-algebra and they would not let him take it again this year. As far as I'm concerned, math should only deal with numbers. Forget shapes and letters!

YogaforCynics said...

Fortunately, there were no such rulers (or at least no such use of them) in my school, or else I doubt I'd be capable of typing this comment. I'll always remember taking algebra in high school. When we had a test, I'd be one of the first to hand it in. The teacher would look at my answers (which would all be correct) and say "where's your work?" I told her I did it in my head. She said that was impressive, but I need to write out all of the formulae (proofs?), anyway. Of course, I hadn't bothered to learn any of that stuff so...things didn't work out so well, though she passed me (I think just so she wouldn't have to deal with me again the next year). At least she didn't call me stupid, even if I refused to be "smart" in a way that involved following the rules laid down.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Lisa - i agree. I have never found a use for Algebra outside of the classroom and my friend who works in engineering says he has his formula written down. Apparently there are jobs that involve use of Algebra - but i am quite happy to let other people do these.

Yogaforcynics - it must be great to be able to do this in your head and i agree that the system doesn't allow for thought outside the rules. My (recent) maths teacher actually told me of someone who upon being asked to work out the height of a building in a maths question said they would simply ask for the building plans.

The sad truth is that in my recent exam only a small part of the mark came from getting the answer right - if you showed your workings out were along the right lines you could still get a mark. Odd.

Anne-Marie said...

DFTP - this made me laugh. I too am not good friends with maths. [And by the way, WHY do Americans say math?] But I had an odd experience with the subject at school. I was one of those kids labelled "bright", so it was assumed by every one I was good at maths. In fact, I was crap. I think my mother was the only one who really knew how bad I was. [This is the woman who does algebra problems FOR FUN.] As far as I'm concerned, talk to me about algebra and you might as well be speaking Welsh. I just don't get it and I don't want to cuz it's dumb!

Are you still taking maths classes, DFTP?

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Hi Anne-Marie

No - fortunately my exam was this time last year. Though i may go back again at some point, as i've already forgotten most of what i learnt. I had hoped to re-do my English A Level, but don't know if this will be possible now as a lot of colleges have cut back on evening classes

Michael said...

I think it's cool how you say maths and we (I'm Canadian) say math. A little detail that will come in handy someday when I want to make one of my characters sound British.

I'm not friends with arithmetic either. Not enough to go back and kick its ass though. You rock. And I'm going to archive this post someplace for my kids to read.

I had a stats prof (a Russian lady with yellow fingers and shrunken-head lips) who gave me a passing grade because I helped her mark her quizzes and fancy up the layout of her research reports. Final exam: she walks down the aisle and sees that I'm still struggling with page one 45 minutes into the test. She kneels down and whispers in my ear AACDCDDDABBCD as I glide my pencil down the row of boxes and check off the correct answers.

Thank God I didn't have to sleep with her!


Jenny F said...

I don't get along with maths either. Your lessons in math seem to have been a real terror though.
Math has been one of my huge dreads also. In secondary school, I didn't pass math, so my mom came up with this idea; math-Sundays. (She loves maths and thinks it's the most important subject there is.) So the following five years, I dedicated the most of my Sundays to maths. Luckily these math-Sundays ended when I graduated from high school. I managed to do quite well though, mostly because of my mother's stubborness I think. Even so I never got the highest grades, but over the medium mostly.

I love the morale of your story! That is so true.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Jenny - you are clearly a braver soul than me. Math sunday! (shivers in horror!) - though it's good that your mom understood maths!

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

By the way michael - if you still have the address of that teacher...!

Honour said...

what a *great* posting ... i'm not sure teachers / adults / anyone realizes the impact they can have on kids ... good for you for going back.

(replace math with swimming - and you've got me)
p.s. isn't that funny? canadians are a british colony, but unlike Anne-Marie's locale - we say "math" and not "maths". Michael's story made me laugh!!

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

hi honour - nearly missed your reply. regarding the whole Math and maths (short for mathematics, hence the s) i can only put this down to the development of language via culture...etc etc