Ivor Grattan-Guinness obituary

From The Guardian, by Tony Crilly

Energetic historian of mathematics and logic

When Ivor Grattan-Guinness, who has died aged 73 of heart failure, became interested in the history of mathematics in the 1960s, it was an area of study widely considered to be irrelevant to mathematics proper, or something that older mathematicians did on retirement. As an undergraduate at Oxford, he found that mathematics was presented drily, with no inkling of the original motivations behind its development. So Ivor set himself the task of asking “What happened in the past?” – as opposed, he said, to taking the heritage viewpoint of asking “How did we get here?”

Read in full.

Ivor Owen Grattan-Guinness, historian of mathematics and logic, born 23 June 1941; died 12 December 2014

MBE to a maths clubs volunteer

From BBC:

A man who runs free maths classes for primary age children has been recognised in the New Year Honours list with an MBE.

Gbolahan Bright has been running the Bright Academy maths clubs for primary age children in London and Essex for the past 20 years.

“I have gained a lot from this society. I have been blessed and it would have been ungrateful of me if I did not give back,” he said.

Of the 500 or so children who have taken the classes, about 50 gained their GCSE while still at primary school.

Read more.

Film and discussion: “Colours of Math”

18 November 2014, , at Pushkin House.  From an advertisement:

The independent documentary “Colours of Math” (2012) by Ekaterina Eremenko – a German-based, American-trained, Russian-born documentary producer and mathematician – has been an unlikely runaway success.  It has been translated into 12 languages, and screened around the world.

With six mathematicians from different countries and six senses that lead them in their journey of discovery, the movie gives an insight into the mystery of abstract mathematical ideas and creative thinking.

The screening (60 min) is followed by a round table discussion. What is happening in contemporary mathematics? Are there particular national schools of thought and traditions of education? Prominent mathematicians will share their views on these questions.


Professor Sergey Foss, Heriot Watt University

Professor Leonid Parnovski, University College London

Professor Eugene Shargorodsky, Kings College London

Dr June Barrow-Green, Open University

The Imitation Game Cryptography Competition

From Charles Walkden, University of Manchester:

Dear all,

The Imitation Game Cryptography Competition:  www.maths.manchester.ac.uk/cryptography_competition_the_imitation_game

`The Imitation Game‘ is a biopic of Alan Turing starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role (also starring Keira Knightley, Charles Dance,…) and will be released in cinemas on Nov 14th.

The film’s distributors asked us to get involved in the publicity and promotion for the film by running a one-off on-line `Imitation Game Cryptography Competition‘, www.maths.manchester.ac.uk/cryptography_competition_the_imitation_game.

It’s free to enter and is open to everybody.  There are some great prizes for you to win: film posters signed by the cast, DVD bundles, soundtracks, etc,  The competition runs until 14th Nov.
Please can you spread the word to anyone and everyone (and feel free to take part yourself!).
PS:  The School’s annual `Alan Turing Cryptography Competition’ will run again from Jan 2015, with registration opening on 1st Dec.  Unlike the Imitation Game competition, this is only open to school children in Year 11 or below – but again please spread the word!
Andrew, Charles, Kees, Sebastian, Helen

Ofsted: Low-level classroom disruption hits learning

From BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-29342539 :

Low-level, persistent disruptive behaviour in England’s schools is affecting pupils’ learning and damaging their life chances, inspectors warn.

The report says too many school leaders, especially in secondary schools, underestimate the prevalence and negative impact of low-level disruptive behaviour and some fail to identify or tackle it at an early stage.


Source: Poll conducted by YouGov for Ofsted, http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/news/failure-of-leadership-tackling-poor-behaviour-costing-pupils-hour-of-learning-day

This is one of many low-level school issues that affect undergraduate mathematics teaching.  In a mathematics lecture, weaker students are more prone to “loosing the thread” than in most other courses. Also, students for whom English is not the first language,  in particular,  most from overseas are more sensitive to the signal-to-noise ratio than natives,  and, at a certain level of background noise,  their understanding of the lecture becomes seriously degraded. In my opinion,  this is one of many neglected issues of undergraduate mathematics education. I in my lectures always insist on complete silence in the audience (and usually start my first lecture with  a brief explanation of the concept of signal-to-noise ratio).

Mother’s thyroid level ‘may predict child’s poor maths’

From BBC:

Children born to mothers who have low levels of thyroid hormones during pregnancy tend to do worse in maths in early primary school, a study says.

Dutch researchers tracked 1,196 healthy children from birth to age five, having recorded their mothers’ thyroxine levels at 12 weeks of pregnancy.

They then looked at the children’s test scores for language and arithmetic.

Those born to mothers with low levels of thyroxine were twice as likely to have below average arithmetic scores.

However, the scientists – led by Dr Martijn Finken at the VU University Medical Centre in Amsterdam – said the five-year-olds’ language results were no different.

The maths results were the same even after taking into consideration the child’s family background.

Read the whole article.

Brain works in sleep

Many mathematicians believe that that their brains continue to do mathematics during sleep. A paper

Kouider et al., Inducing Task-Relevant Responses to Speech in the Sleeping Brain, Current Biology (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.08.016

Proves that brain continues in sleep some mental activities of the day.

From the summary of the paper:

using semantic categorization and lexical decision tasks, we studied task-relevant responses triggered by spoken stimuli in the sleeping brain. Awake participants classified words as either animals or objects (experiment 1) or as either words or pseudowords (experiment 2) by pressing a button with their right or left hand, while transitioning toward sleep. The lateralized readiness potential (LRP), an electrophysiological index of response preparation, revealed that task-specific preparatory responses are preserved during sleep. These findings demonstrate that despite the absence of awareness and behavioral responsiveness, sleepers can still extract task relevant information from external stimuli and covertly prepare for appropriate motor responses.

The paper generated a huge response in mass media: BBC, New Scientist, NBC News. It is mentioned in this blog because the study of brain activity  is relevant to mathematics education. A naive question: do our students get enough sleep?

Why Do Americans Stink at Math?

An article by in the NYT; it is about America, but is very timely in the context of the National Curriculum reform in England. A quote:

It wasn’t the first time that Americans had dreamed up a better way to teach math and then failed to implement it. The same pattern played out in the 1960s, when schools gripped by a post-Sputnik inferiority complex unveiled an ambitious “new math,” only to find, a few years later, that nothing actually changed. In fact, efforts to introduce a better way of teaching math stretch back to the 1800s. The story is the same every time: a big, excited push, followed by mass confusion and then a return to conventional practices.

The trouble always starts when teachers are told to put innovative ideas into practice without much guidance on how to do it. In the hands of unprepared teachers, the reforms turn to nonsense, perplexing students more than helping them. [Emphasis is mine — AB.]

Read the whole article.



Can you pass the maths test for 11-year-olds?

A sample KS2 test based on the official publication from Standards and Testing Agency,
2016 key stage 2 mathematics test: sample questions, mark scheme and commentary,
was published in The Telegraph. One question attracts attention. In The Telegraph version, it is

A question as published in The Telegraph.

The answer given is £12,396.

And this is the original question from 2016 key stage 2 mathematics test: sample questions, mark scheme and commentary

The official version of the same question

In my opinion, both versions contain serious didactic errors. Would the readers agree with me?

And here are official marking guidelines:

Official marking guidelines

And the official commentary:

In year 6 pupils are expected to interpret and solve problems using pie charts. In this question pupils can use a number of strategies including using angle facts or using fractions to complete the proportional reasoning required.
Pupils are expected to use known facts and procedures to solve this more complex problem. There are a small number of numeric steps but there is a demand associated with interpretation of data (or using spatial knowledge). The response strategy requires pupils to organise their method.