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Making Things Add Up

July 20, 2011

I’m guessing that around 50% of readers of this blog have been following the UK version of “The Apprentice” this season – meaning the programme had at least 1 other viewer besides myself.

It was the usual riot of (probably) competent workers bamboozled by a lack of sleep, time, a film crew and common sense. For me, the awarding of cash to inventor Tom seemed the right decision. Helen may have won the tasks most often, but would anybody pay good money to have somebody else make a dental appointment for them? Her last minute thought about a bakery (we had several like that round here, all closed as supermarkets opened) just seemed desperate too – and I’d have fired her for that alone, to be honest.

What caught my attention as a theme for this week, though, was the penultimate episode where Jim was asked to multiply £7 by 60 people and came up with a daft answer. OK, as always, he was under pressure, but just the sheer pattern of the numbers ( six sevens are forty two, then add a zero ) are mental arithmetic.

From where does the British thing of being ‘scared’ of maths come from? It wasn’t my favourite subject at school either – and I needed extra help with it as the teaching was so terrible – but I got there in the end and now use numbers every day in my working life. If I had to get out a calculator every time, I wouldn’t have time to write this blog either… and no, I’m not listening to the barracking from the back… Mr P too enjoys playing with figures all the time – but as always, we won’t go there… and if he’d left some in their original boxes, he could’ve retired by now (and avoided a lot of pain in High School, come to that).

Back on track: what is it about numbers that seems to confuse the Brits? It is true that times-tables are a pain to learn – I was as reluctant as anybody – and fractions are even worse. In fact a survey found that half of all respondents didn’t understand them, and the other three quarters were not sure. Still, those tables, plus the very basic thing of splitting a number in half, and working out 10% by just imagining a decimal point moving one place over to the left are fundamental life skills used every day when shopping or in many workplaces – even if only to share out the biscuits at tea break (mine’s an ‘emergency biscuit,’ thanks Tom – I’ll pass on the bissquit, though, ta).

You can’t always blame the teachers either. Many apparently don’t have maths skills themselves (repeatedly failing the compulsory maths exam during teacher training is a sign) yet are forced to teach the subject – particularly in Junior schools. Even if you have a specialist, it’s no guarantee a person can actually ‘teach’ anyway of course.

I wonder if we should go the route of “Kumon” – long pages of repetitive sums that get tougher the more sheets you do. It teaches numbers the same way I learned English vocabulary and spelling, by pure repetition.

We need to move away from the perception that maths is hard, and it can be done. What about a “Maths Factor” (NOT with Carol Vorderman), with each week teaching 16 contestants a new maths skill along with the audience? TV that actually educates for a change?

I think it would add up, and if we could pitch it to Lord Sugar to put up £250,000 we may just have a winner.

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