Well, two of the country’s most famous mathematicians want to help you find some enthusiasm again.
One from the top
Carol Vorderman needs no introduction, but here’s one anyway. After 26 years crunching the numbers for Countdown, she left and launched her own online maths school themathsfactor.com.
She’s also David Cameron’s maths tsar — and she’s worried about the nation’s lack of numeracy.
“We have an enormous problem. Of the adult population aged 16-65, it’s only 22% who are numerate to a pretty average GCSE level. That is appalling, disgraceful and unnecessary. One reason for that is cultural; in this country there’s a sense that maths is boring and difficult.”
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But far from finding maths boring herself, Carol says that for her “numbers dance”. “Maths is a language not a subject. It’s the language of commerce, of science, of technology; it’s a form of communication. If you took numbers away then you can’t run a business or communicate ideas in science.”
If you find maths boring and difficult then read on. We asked Carol and latest Countdown numbers whizz Rachel Riley how the nation can improve its mathematical skills.
Aptitude or application?
First up, do these mighty mathematical minds believe that some people are naturally good at numbers while others struggle?
Carol thinks there’s something in that, although she’s adamant that almost everyone can improve: “Everyone can learn to do maths although some people do have a natural ability. I could practise the guitar every day and learn to play but I’d never be brilliant. However, I could play most Beatles songs – and certainly Status Quo! – by Christmas if I practised.
“It’s exactly the same with maths, people just need to practise. It won’t necessarily make them genius mathematicians but they can be numerate.”
Rachel on the other hand believes some people are naturally more confident, but agrees that practice is key: “I think it’s a myth that there’s such thing as a ‘maths brain’ and if you don’t have one you can’t do maths. Some people are naturally confident manipulating numbers [but] practice definitely makes you faster and more confident though. I’ve practised the Countdown game thousands of times now and I’m way faster than I used to be!” Making it simpler
Rachel says that fast arithmetic is down to working out shortcuts: “Mental arithmetic is all about practice and about doing as little calculation as possible! Sometimes people ask me things like how do I know my 43 or 57 times table? The truth is I don’t, I just know my 50 and my seven times tables, and put the pieces together afterwards.
“Working out the chunks you know and adding on or taking away the extra pieces is a great shortcut for using much less brainpower!”
A sense of power
Carol believes that there’s no substitute for gaining confidence in the basics by practising simpler sums until they come easy.
“It’s about confidence. You feel a sense of power of your brain when you can do it. It’s just a tragedy that more or less half of those 16-year-olds who take GCSEs fail. Even those who get a grade C, more than half a year later they cannot calculate a percentage.”
As the newest maths whizz on Countdown, does Rachel have to practise? “I’ve practised the Countdown numbers game a lot! Ask a darts player to do some subtraction or a croupier to work out a ratio and they’ll do it in a flash, you can train your brain to think in a certain way almost to the point where you don’t actually have to think.
“To keep me sharp for Countdown I like to swap the large numbers 25, 50, 75, 100 for things like 37 or 89 so I’m having to think more and I can’t even look at a three-digit number without working out its factors – it’s an occupational hazard!”
So it’s really all down to spending some time with the basics. If you’d like to improve your maths skills, there are some great resources online. For example, the BBC has a series of tutorials in practical, common-sense maths for adults.
How’s your maths? Did a horrible teacher put you off?
21st April 2012