Yagmur Denizhan: Response to Comments

Anonymous on 4 January 2015 at 22:49 said in response to my post:

Anon: My comments are on a few themes which appear within the paper. They are stand-alone, selected on the basis of curiosity, and do not necessarily present a coherent over-arching argument.
On Games:
…the winning strategies in such games were typically based on identifying the underlying algorithm instead of being “misled” by the story.
This is very true, and I view it as a result of the human tendency to simplify or reduce puzzles to their essence.

YD: I would prefer to say the “pragmatically relevant essence”… Yet there is also another tendency that is unfortunately systematically suppressed by the system that I am criticising: The tendency to comprehend and delve into the essence of anything/everything.

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David Singerman: X + Y the movie

[To appear in the LMS Newsletter]

There are now an increasing number of movies where mathematics plays an important role. Usually we are let down by the parts featuring the maths because the makers of the film have little knowledge about our subject. So it is a real pleasure to review x+y a beautiful film where the mathematics is carefully done but not in a way that will put off a non-mathematical audience. The director is Morgan Matthews who also made the BBC4 documentary Beautiful Young Minds about the Mathematical Olympiad and the film is clearly based on this documentary. This documentary can be seen on Youtube.

The main character is Nathan. From the BBC synopsis

Preferring to hide in the safety of his own private world, Nathan struggles to connect with people, often pushing away those who want to be closest to him, including his mother, Julie. Without the ability to understand love or affection, Nathan finds the comfort and security he needs in numbers and mathematics.

Even though there are similarities between this film and the documentary, the main story line is totally fictitious. Near the beginning, Nathan, who has Asperger’s syndrome, is involved in a car crash which kills his father to whom he was very close. He is then mentored by his maths teacher Martin Humphreys, who when young had taken part in the Mathematics Olympiad. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis but also has other problems to do with self worth and soft drugs and ended up being a secondary school teacher.

Humphreys recognizes Nathan’s abilities and persuades him to enter for the Olympiad. He goes to the preliminaries in Taipei.

One of the scenes where there is actual maths is when Nathan is brought to the board to explain how to solve a problem. This involves playing cards which can be face up or face down.

Nathan’s solution is to model this with binary arithmetic involving 0s and 1s and he then turns the problem into an arithmetic one which is easy to solve.

In Taipei he meets Zhang Mei, a girl on the Chinese team. The film concentrates on two relationships. One between Nathan and Zhang Mei and the other between Martin Humphreys and Julie.

The scene moves from Taipei to Cambridge where the Maths Olympiad takes place.

There is real pathos in the final scenes. One where Nathan finally opens himself up to his Mother, and another when Nathan and Zhang Mei while travelling back from Cambridge by train see a rainbow and the viewer feels that their relationship will last. At last, Nathan feels and understands love and affection. Some critics have thought that this ending is too soapy, but if you see the documentary on which this film is based, the rainbow really was there!

One should also mention the excellent cast. Nathan was played by Asa Butterfield, Martin by Ralf Spall, Julie by Sally Hawkins and Zang Mei by Jo Yang. A lovely film where mathematics plays a central role.

Geoff Smith on X + Y

Reposted from the UKMT’s Newsletter:

In March 2015, the film  X + Y  will appear in cinemas all over the UK. This is a romantic drama, and explores a collection of intense personal relationships. One of the main characters is a teenaged boy (played by Asa Butterfield) who competes enthusiastically in UKMT competitions, and who dreams of going to the International Mathematical Olympiad. Several leading actors decorate the cast (Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Rafe Spall, Jo Yang). The film was made with the co-operation of UKMT and the IMO, and logos and flags appear accordingly. The film has secured international distribution contracts, and will be seen in many countries, and on airlines.

This film grew out of the BBC2 documentary “Beautiful Young Minds”, and the common director is Morgan Matthews. If UKMT were to make such a film (an exceptionally bad suggestion), the emphasis would be much more on the mathematics and less on the relationships. Morgan Matthews has become very interested in the way people on the autistic spectrum can prosper in mathematics. There has been a natural concern in the maths community that portraying some mathematicians as being less than socially fluent is dangerous, because it could lead to the misapprehension that mathematicians are all strange.

My personal view is that the prefix “mis” in the previous sentence can be deleted. All mathematicians are strange because they place such an exceptional value on thought, ideas and understanding. I think that the maths community should be proud of the way it embraces people on the basis of their enthusiasm for and interest in mathematics. University maths departments are happy places, where the socially adroit rub along in harmony with people who live in more private spaces. The trick is mutual respect and affection. This is equally true of UKMT maths camps. Most students are relaxed and outgoing, with the full set of skills that allow them to prosper in the teenage social maelstrom. Some others are not, but everyone gets along almost all of the time, united by a passion for ideas and ingenuity. We all know maths people who sometimes appear confused and nervous, but who have beautiful mathematical insights.

Things would be even better if women and all racial groups were richly represented in the maths community, and UKMT has done excellent work on the gender issue by founding the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad and running the annual talent search examination, the UK Maths Olympiad for Girls. The mentoring schemes make an excellent education in mathematical problem solving available to all social groups. However, while social inclusion is very much “work in progress”, the incorporation of people on the autistic spectrum into the wider maths community seems to be a great success, and in my view, a cause for celebration.

Geoff Smith, Chair of the BMO and the IMO, University of Bath.

Disclaimer: Geoff was involved in assisting to make X + Y, so his views are not impartial.

Book Review: “What the Best College Teachers Do” by Ken Bain, 2004

Book review by Richard Elwes:

Open a typical book on the theory of pedagogy, and all too often one is confronted by a morass of impenetrable and, one often suspects, unnecessary jargon. So it is a particular pleasure to read Ken Bain’s “What the Best College Teachers Do”. The book is the outcome of a fifteen year study in which Bain and colleagues identified and analysed around a hundred excellent teachers at US Colleges and Universities. Through extensive observations, discussions, and interviews with the teachers and their students, Bain arrives at a range of conclusions regarding the practice of good teaching. His findings are laid bare in a series of straightforwardly entitled chapters: “How do they conduct class?”, “How do they treat their students?”, and so on.

Few of his discoveries come as complete surprises, yet many are genuinely enlightening. For instance, the best teachers “have an unusually keen sense of the histories of their disciplines, including the controversies that have swirled within them, and that understanding seems to help them reflect deeply on the nature of thinking within their fields”.

Many of the insights within this book derive from the removal of extraneous and superficial aspects of education. How do good teachers speak to their students? Obviously, there are countless possible answers. But what do these approaches have in common? “Perhaps the most significant skill the teachers in our study displayed in the classroom… was the ability to communicate orally in ways that stimulated thought.”

The author often allows his educators to speak for themselves, and as one might expect, they are a thoughtful and frequently amusing group. Thus we read the Harvard political theorist Michael Sandel opining that teaching is “above all… about commanding attention and holding it… Our task… is not unlike that of a commercial for a soft drink”. On the other hand, Jeanette Norden, professor of cell biology at Vanderbilt University, “told us that before she begins the first class in any semester, she thinks about the awe and excitement she felt the first time anyone explained the brain to her, and she considers how she can help her students achieve that same feeling.”

The teachers analysed come from a wide range of Colleges and academic disciplines; some teach only elite students, others specialise in assisting strugglers; while several are eminent researchers, a few have no research publications at all; they deploy a variety of educational techniques. Among this diversity, the conclusions that Bain avoids are as interesting as those he draws. “[P]ersonality played little or no role in successful teaching. We encountered both the bashful and the bold, the restrained and the histrionic…. We found no pattern in instructors’ sartorial habits, or in what students and professors called each other. In some classrooms first names were common; in others, only titles and surnames prevailed.”

All the same, some common traits are apparent. “Exceptional teachers treat their lectures… and other elements of teaching as serious intellectual endeavors, as intellectually demanding and important as their research and scholarship.”

Particularly important, Bain argues, is the fostering of a “natural critical learning environment”. This is the closest the book ever comes to jargon, but that judgement would be unfair: “‘natural’ because students encounter the skills, habits, attitudes, and information they are trying to learn embedded in questions and tasks they find fascinating… ‘critical’ because students learn to… reason from evidence, to examine the quality of their reasoning… and to ask probing and insightful questions about the thinking of other people”.

At this stage, the reader might worry that this catalogue of heroic deeds could be dispiriting to the rest of us. Not so. Whilst Bain is full of admiration for his teachers, he by no means deifies them. “Even the best teachers have bad days… they are not immune to frustrations, lapses in judgement, worry, or failure.” On the contrary, their ability to confront their own shortcomings is one thing which sets the best teachers apart from those others who “never saw any problems with their own teaching, or they believed they could do little to correct deficiencies”. Good teachers show humility and willingness to improve.

In comparison, the teachers identified as the “worst” by their students often appear to carry the attitude, as one of Bain’s subjects puts it, that only “smart men can possibly comprehend this material and that if you can’t understand what I’m saying, that must mean I’m a lot smarter than you are”. As the biologist Craig Nelson says “The trouble with most of us… is that we teach like we were god.” Contrast this to the view of Dudley Herrschbach, another of the teachers in the study (as well as being a Nobel Prize-winning Chemist) that “You have to be confused… before you can reach a new level of understanding anything.”

In summary, this short book is far more readable and entertaining than a text on educational theory has any right to be. It offers every Higher Education teacher an invaluable opportunity: to learn from the best.

Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do, Harvard University Press, 2004. ISBN-10: 0674013255. ISBN-13: 978-0674013254.

Steven Strogatz: Whi Pi Matters

Our American colleagues celebrate today Pi Day, although, technically speaking, it is American Pi Day: for the rest of the world, today is 14/03/14. A brilliant article by Steven Strogartz in The New Yorker, a brief quote:

What distinguishes pi from all other numbers is its connection to cycles. For those of us interested in the applications of mathematics to the real world, this makes pi indispensable. Whenever we think about rhythms—processes that repeat periodically, with a fixed tempo, like a pulsing heart or a planet orbiting the sun—we inevitably encounter pi. There it is in the formula for a Fourier series: […]

Read the whole article.

Cameron’s £15,000 for maths and science teachers

From BBC:

David Cameron is to announce a £15,000 university bursary for teenagers with good A-level maths and science grades, if they commit to enter teaching.

This “golden hello” for teenagers is an attempt to recruit more maths and physics teachers for England’s schools. […]

These will begin with pilot projects, with a so far unspecified number of places, which will see incentives for young people to sign up for teaching before going to university.

The £15,000 over three years for potential teachers would help with living costs and would be repayable if students did not go on to teach for three years after graduating

Read full article.

Students Are Not Asking Questions

It seems that this problem, already well-known to many our colleagues, has started to go mainstream:

Students Are Not Asking Questions: A Working Conference to Address a Fundamental Problem in Education

A Conference to Address a Fundamental Problem in Education on July 13 and 14, 2015. 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM at Park Plaza Hotel, Boston, Massachusetts

NRICH Programme Director (Fixed Term)

NRICH Programme Director (Fixed Term)

Salary: £51,702-£54,841 p.a.

Closing date: 26 March 2015

The Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge is seeking to appoint a full-time Director of the very high-profile NRICH mathematics project (http://nrich.maths.org),

NRICH is a successful and vibrant project, supporting teachers and students nationally and internationally. NRICH offers rich online mathematical resources for teachers and learners from Early Years to Key Stage 5, and support and professional development for teachers. The NRICH website currently attracts more than 6 million visits and around 30 million pageviews per year and the NRICH team also works with thousands of teachers and pupils each year through face-to-face activities.

The Director is responsible for the strategic and day-to-day management of the project and leading the exceptional NRICH team. Responsibilities include day-to-day project management and administration; project planning and development; and overseeing and contributing to the development of content for the NRICH website and the delivery of professional development for teachers. The NRICH Director is also responsible for developing and maintaining links with key organisations and the wider educational community, and plays a key role in helping the project contribute to the national mathematics education agenda.

The successful candidate will share NRICH’s vision of mathematics as a rich, creative subject. They will have a first degree in mathematics or a closely related subject; a Masters or doctoral qualification in mathematics, mathematics education or a closely related subject would be an advantage; a teaching qualification and substantial mathematics teaching experience, together with a thorough knowledge of the UK school system, including educational administration and assessment procedures; considerable prior experience of creating mathematics enrichment resources and mathematics teaching and learning materials; considerable prior experience in the development and delivery of professional development for teachers; excellent leadership and teamwork skills; excellent communication and interpersonal skills; and a demonstrable interest in the use of the internet and new technologies in education.

NRICH is part of the Millennium Mathematics Project (maths.org), involving staff employed by both the Faculty of Education and the Faculty of Mathematics. The post is held within the Faculty of Education but physically based in the Faculty of Mathematics in central Cambridge. An important part of the role involves building strong working relationships within the University and externally.

Some travel to schools, conferences and other venues nationally and internationally will be required.

For full information please download the further particulars for the post at http://www.jobs.cam.ac.uk/job/6102

How to apply:

Applications must be submitted online. To apply online for this vacancy and to download the further particulars for the role, please visit http://www.jobs.cam.ac.uk/job/6102

Fixed-term: The funds for this post are available for 3 years in the first instance.

Once an offer of employment has been accepted, the successful candidate will be required to undergo an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service check.

Please quote reference JR05278 on your application and in any correspondence about this vacancy.

Retain Alan Turing’s Notebook for the Nation

E-petition launched by Professor S. Barry Cooper:

On January 19, 2015, the FT reported that “A notebook belonging to the man known as the father of the computing age is expected to fetch at least $1m at auction. Alan Turing’s notebook is thought to date from 1942, when the Briton was leading the cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park in the battle to break the German Enigma codes, the period of his life covered in the Oscar-nominated film ‘The Imitation Game’. The notebook containing 56 pages of handwritten notes was among papers that Turing left to his friend and fellow mathematician Robin Gandy. Cassandra Hatton, senior specialist at Bonhams, called the notebook, ‘probably the most extensive manuscript that exists in Turing’s hand. To be able to look in and see his thought processes is extremely important.”
We call on the Government to liaise with the Science Museum and other major British institutions, to assist in buying this important item, and protecting it for viewing by the British people and international visitors.

If you are a UK citizen, sign the petition.

Barry Cooper’s article in Guardian Northerner.

The Alan Turing Year website