Saturday, August 25, 2007

Well, hello...

This, folks, is a certain Danica Mckellar, who may be known to people on the other side of the water in the US. She's an actress, and a mathematician. (She's also apparently released a yoga/meditation DVD, but let's pass over that in dignified Wittgensteinian silence, shall we?)

And she's written a book on maths. Sorry, math. (I recall an American friend and teacher saying to me, "yup, we only have the one subject in the US".)

And it's called... wait for it... "Math Doesn't Suck".

This has to be a good thing, surely. Ms Mckellar is apparently keen to reach teenage girls with the message that mathematics is a subject that can appeal to them - in a nutshell, I suppose (and trust me, I'm not being facetious, it really is her point): babes can do math. More details of the book etc can be found here.

Ms Mckellar, we here at TPIOT salute you, wish you well in your work, and are proud not to have descended too far into Leslie Phillips territory, despite an overwhelming urge to say something like "ding dong".


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Lemon-soaked paper napkins

Jings but things have been busy. Nevertheless we here at The Proof is Out There wish to apologise for the hiatus in bloggery over the past week. Rest assured that we are working hard to overcome this problem and that normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

In the meantime, here is some music.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Choose a job you love...

... and you'll never do a day's work in your life.

Old Chinese proverb, apparently. And on a good day I absolutely believe this to be true. Worth recalling now I'm back at work.

Oh, and one other thing - it's also worth mentioning that ants dance a mean samba. How could anyone disagree?

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Round up

A few sites worth checking out... first up, Vlorbik is hosting the XIV Carnival of Mathematics here. This is a round-up of all manner of maths-related websites and I'm honoured (or should that be honored) that this humble blog has been included.

On the back of this mention, I'm chuffed to bits that the joke press conference (Bush & Brown) has now been linked to by some other bloggers too... see here for an American educationalist's take on the TIMSS business, and here for the sheer joy of this blog making it into what I think is the Dutch language. Dank U!

And finally, a mention of reel fanatic's movie-review blog here. Sure, the blogosphere is heaving with many such sites, but I like the choices, and admit to having a soft spot for Macon, Georgia.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Maths Teacher Goes to the Movies: Hairspray

OK, I know it's remiss of me not to have seen this one earlier, but it's amazing how busy one can be on holiday. Anyhoo, finally managed to see this the other night and was surprised by how good business was - not quite a full house, but not bad for a movie three weeks or so after opening.

It's always interesting catching up with a film later on, because by then you've heard quite a few reviews and comments from friends, all of which can work for the film or indeed the other way. Going in, I knew the following: (a) it's a film of the musical based on the earlier Hairspray movie; and (b) it's got John Travolta in a fat suit playing a woman. (At least, I hope it's a fat suit... you don't think he did a Rene Zellwegger, do you? I mean, Mr Travolta's a man who likes a meat pie at the best of times but... no, surely not.) Oh, and just to clarify: I have not seen the original John Waters movie, though I know enough to be able both to bluff about it and to spot Mr Water's (very appropriate) cameo appearance in the new film.

How's the movie?
Well, it's not at all bad, so long as you don't mind musicals of course. It is loud (very loud) and colourful, but like so many musicals there isn't much variation in tone. Hard to know what you can do about this, to be honest. Musical theatre needs to play to row Z, so subtlety's not really an option. But I came out pretty happy, having "gone" with the movie. A few days later and I can only vaguely recall a couple of tunes, but it all seemed passable enough at the time. Newcomer Nikki Blonsky is very good indeed, Christopher Walken does his usual schtick (though not enough dancing, if you ask me), Queen Latifah gives it big laldy... and it's certainly nice to see Michelle Pfeiffer in a movie again.

However... let it be said the really wrong note in the film is the afore-mentioned Mr Travolta himself. Oh dear. First up, his accent is absolutely all over the place, though no matter where it wanders I can't help but think he is channeling Dr Evil from the Austin Powers franchise. Nor can he sing particularly well. And I'm sorry, but in a film which is at least in part (it seems) about challenging society's views of (ahem) fat people, what the hell's the point in then simply inviting us to laugh at JT padded up and out as a fatty? In the original film this part was played by the cross-dressing transexual Divine - who was that size - which perhaps also allowed the movie to touch on even wider societal hang-ups, but no such allusion is possible here. A case of Hollywood (if not JT) wanting to have their cake and eat it, I suppose.

How's the maths?
Zip, zilch, nada. Nothing to see here. Move it along folks.

Can I teach with it?
Well, if you teach History or Modern studies, this movie could lead into a discussion regarding issues of race in 1960's America, but you'd be brave to try it, because apparently all we need to do is to get down and boogie. Or something.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Results, results, results... part two

OK, settle down, this might be a long one.

A quick recap: first up, the structure of Scottish education, exam-wise. In fifth year (a bit like year 11 down South - the first year of the two year A Level?) able pupils will sit Highers; in sixth year pupils can then choose to sit Advanced Highers (very much like A Levels, though probably a bit harder to be honest... I would say that, being Scottish), or perhaps more Highers in other subjects. or a mix of both.

But! according to the news today (see here, for example), the number of students choosing AHs is down on last year, much to the (apparent) consternation of universities. How can this be?

Well, two reasons, both of them pretty accurate if you ask me:

1. It's the universities' fault
It's a bit rich of the universities to complain about this situation, given that they use the Higher (NOT the AH) as the benchmark for university entrance. When the structure of our exams was changed a few years back and AH introduced (in place of the old "Sixth Year Studies"), the unis had a perfect opportunity to back AHs as precisely the sort of course which students should have to do. But they didn't. Oh no. Why not? Well, I hate to be cynical here, but if they had gone for AHs instead of Highers, then they wouldn't have got so many students through their doors... which of course means less money.

And so the status quo reigns. If a student does well in their Highers in fifth year, they can do bugger all in sixth year and they will still get a place at university. So why should they knock themselves out studying a harder course like AH? (We have to do a big sell in my school on how difficult it is to cope with a Maths degree if all you've seen is Higher work, which is true beyond words I can offer here.)

But there's more: when asked, universities will actually advise students not to bother with AHs and go off and do some more Highers instead. I can offer a personal example here: a student of mine once applied to study Maths at a Scottish university and did well in his Maths Higher (an A), but less well in other subjects. This lad was clear that he wanted to study Maths so in his sixth year he studied two Maths AHs (Pure and Applied, if you will), plus Higher Accounting. Now his Higher results weren't so strong that he was going to be offered an unconditional place, but we were pretty pissed off when the unversity in question made him an offer conditional on him getting a B in Accounting and completely ignored the far more relevant (surely?) Maths AHs.

So if universities really are so gutted at the drop in AH uptake, it's high time they started treating it as at least equal importance (if not more so) than the Higher.

2. The schools can't afford to run them - or aren't willing to
Now I don't want to get personal here, but let me say this: for most schools, for most subjects, the number of students who will want to study an AH will be small (easily fewer than ten), and for the management of most schools, that's not a cost they are willing to meet. Far too expensive. Classes of single figures - how ridiculous!

However... I do like to point out that the most able pupils in our schools tend to be taught in the largest of classes from first to fifth year (up around 30 in a class, maybe more), whilst the less able get targeted help and support in smaller classes. So, in a sense, the more able subsidise the less able. Is it so ridiculous to hope that we might view AHs in sixth year as some form of minor payback?


So there you go. It would be nice if, say, the new government in Scotland could throw some money at the problem so that schools could more readily afford to run AHs (though I sense this isn't terribly high up their agenda), but it will take more than a few crocodile tears from the universities if we are really to do something about the problem in uptake.

Results, results, results - part one

So, the exam results are now out in Scotland, though I've yet to see any mention of pass rates etc in mathematics. But the papers are covering two "stories": one, the online results service offered by SQA; two, the decrease in the numbers of students studying Advanced Highers.

So, the first one then: yes, indeed, for the first time ever across Scotland, students were given the opportunity a while back to sign up for an online (or text) results service, which meant that they could log on a day early and find out their results (that would be yesterday) before the actual envelope containing the results dropped through the letterbox (that would be today).


First up, it's amusing to see that apparently a large number of students couldn't access the results because they had forgotten their passwords, and apparently some parents are complaining about this, like it's the SQA's fault. Ah, parents, how we love thee...

But taking a more serious look at this: this must have cost some money, right? And no university or employer or whatever is ever going to accept a printout of a web-page as evidence of exam results, right? So we can never get rid of the need for the paper copy - the exam transcripts, as I believe they are referred to - right?

(You see where I'm headed?)

So basically this expensive (I'm guessing) results service is pretty bloody pointless and a waste of money - right? I mean I admit it's nice for the students to find out a day early, but it's hardly life or death, is it? Is it honestly worth spending a lot of money on? Is it cynical of me to think that SQA are doing this just because it's a (supposedly) funky sort of use of technology, which must therefore be A Good Thing?

Just how much money has it cost, I wonder?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Suggestions, please!

Here's the thing:

Up here in Scotland quite a few schools are getting excited about "early presentation", which means getting kids to sit some exams (say) a year early in order to allow more time for the "big" exams (here we're meaning the Highers, which are typically sat in fifth year of secondary education, ie the penultimate year assuming you leave school around 18).

I confess I'm not a big fan of this myself, as I worry that we try to cram too much in too soon, and there seem to me to be developmental issues regarding the maturity of pupils for sitting such exams in the first place. BUT! I am keen to see more able pupils being challenged with appropriate work, so here's the question: what work? In particular - say, from a university perspective - what sort of ideas, concepts, methods etc would you say are pretty darn fundamental to being able to cope with further mathematics?

In a way I guess I am asking for people to come forth with their pet hates, ie. where undergraduates tend to go wrong in big ways, and that is part of it. But I'm happy for the net to be cast wider. (I have asked a colleague who works in Electrical and Electronic Engineering and he offered work on logarithmic and exponential functions as being worthy of early coverage, and I see his point.)

Without giving away too many details, this coming session I'm going to have a class in third year (aged 14 ish?) who will be working towards an exam in two years' time. They are a bright bunch and I'm confident I have a lot of time to get through what they need to know AND to cover a good deal more besides, but I need to decide what exactly this bonus DVD material should be. For example, I'm pretty sure I want to cover work on vectors (even though, scandalously IMHO, they don't need to know it for the exam) - but what about, say, matrices?

(BTW, if you're interested in knowing more about the content of maths curricula in Scotland, I'd suggest you look at the SQA website where content can be viewed: here, for example, is the arrangements document for Higher Mathematics.)

Contributions most welcome: you may now start grumping. (And yes, I will be covering fractions!!!)

Friday, August 03, 2007

Well, it could happen...

I see here that the US has apparently withdrawn from the TIMSS programme, which is an international study designed to allow comparisons between the relative mathematical abilities of students in different countries around the world. (This also allows newspapers to print stories about how poorly Scotland is doing compared to England, or the other way about, according to our positions in the "league table".)

Interesting. Is the US withdrawing to spend the money more usefully elsewhere, or is the government scared of the negative publicity which may ensue if such data does become available and is less than flattering? Discuss.

Meanwhile, surely there's a better way to compare countries: why don't we just make our political leaders sit the tests for us instead? Just imagine that press conference...

Question: what is 37 times 23?

Response from George W Bush (US): You know, I’m getting’ kinda tired of being asked this question all the time. People keep askin’ me, what’s 37 times 23? When will you finally give an answer? And all I can say is, I refuse to set terms and conditions on what 37 times 23 is, or to give a deadline for that solution. I mean, if I give what’s meant to be some kinda definitive answer, that’s just gonna embolden the enemy. But we’re workin’ on this. You gotta trust me on this one.

Response from Gordon Brown (UK): I'm happy to announce that under a Labour government, 37 times 23 is much more than it ever was under the Conservatives.

Question: differentiate sine x with respect to x

Response from George W Bush (US): Now I'm no expert on math, but I believe we do need to show respect to x. I believe all letters should be respected, not just x, but also y, and zee, and... um... all the the other letters, alphabetically speaking. And as for this business of sinex, well, let me be clear that we do need to differentiate on this matter, 'cos if we do nothing about sinexes then we just end up emboldening the nasal passages. And that's just what the enemy wants. So I'm calling on Congress to support our troops and join with me in this battle on terror. We need to differentiate the sinexes and smoke 'em out.

Response from Gordon Brown (UK): It's important, I believe, to identify the role of the United Nations in ensuring differentiation, according to the Newton/Leibniz protocol originally agreed in 1673. It would be easy to give an answer to this question of how we differentiate sine x, but we have to be able to meet this answer within the context of financial jurisprudence, which is why...

(That's enough politico-mathematical satire - Ed.)