There are three types of people in the world: those who can count and those who cannot.
But the ways people respond to mathematics can be put roughly into three groups – the maths-likers, the perplexed and the traumatised. See “Writing about Maths for the Perplexed and Traumatized” by Steven Strogatz.
Strogatz uses the term “naturals” for this group. The maths-likers are people who liked maths at school and find it interesting. Some maths-likers go on to become maths teachers or accountants or statisticians or work in some other area that uses mathematics. A few become research mathematicians. Whether or not they continue to use maths in their careers, they like it. They may even play with maths in their spare time or go to MathsJams.
The traumatised I have written about before. The traumatised had experiences in their schooling that left them feeling that they were not good at maths and would never understand maths. These are the people who step back from you when you explain that you teach maths. (As an aside, do people think we like it when they cheerfully tell us how much they hate the thing we do?)
And there are the perplexed – the ones who were able to answer the questions in the maths book and in assessments, probably by working hard, following directions and suspending disbelief. Maths was not something that they really got, but it was not a problem to them. They are perplexed because they can do maths, but they do not understand why anyone would find it more than useful.
I recently attended a conference in Cambridge England for mathematics communicators. It is the second such biennial conference, and brought together over a hundred people, most of whom would fit happily in the maths-likers category. It included bloggers, writers, YouTubers, teachers and students. Organisations such as the Royal Institution, the Museum of Mathematics in New York and Open University were represented. Matt Parker entertained us as Master of Ceremonies and we heard from Simon Singh, Brady Haran from Numberphile and a whole range of other communicators. You can see the exciting programme here: http://talkingmathsinpublic.uk/programme/
You can also hear an interview with Jesse Mulligan on Radio New Zealand National here.
I was able to attend, all the way from the other side of the globe, with help from the Canterbury Mathematical Association. In order to make the most of the opportunity I gave a workshop entitled “The Magic of Statistics – with Dragons”, which was well received despite my lack of voice. It was nearly “Miming Maths in Public” from me. The delegates loved my dragons!
It was an amazing experience which helped me gain confidence and ideas in my own efforts to talk maths and stats in public through this blog, the YouTube channel and games. I particularly enjoyed the presentation on being inclusive to all people. The magician Neil Kelso reinforced the need for kindness. Magicians tend to make me nervous, but his genial and warm approach was a wonderful model for me to build on.
On a totally unrelated note, I loved being the subject of so much Prime Minister envy. (NZ’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has a big following in the UK.)
One thing the conference made me think about is who is our audience, and who should be our audience. I will focus this on YouTube, as that is currently my main area of influence.
The internet and Wikipedia are facilitating the democratisation of knowledge. Almost anyone can find out almost anything by looking it up using a search engine (most often Google). YouTube takes it a step further in democratising understanding. Any time I want to find out how to do something, I go to YouTube.
Some mathematics communication is aimed at maths-likers. It shows cool and beautiful and exciting abstract and applicable mathematics. Through these videos we can encourage more learners to feel happy about mathematics. Numberphile and the Royal Institution are of this type.
Some mathematics communication is aimed at the perplexed. These are sites like Primrose Kitten (though why a kitten would be yellow escapes me) which help with exam preparation. It was fun to see the massive spike in views the day before GCSE exams in the UK. My own statistics videos help millions of people who are struggling to understand their statistics course. I hope, as I’m sure PK does too, that our help will possibly move the learner out of the perplexed category so that they see a bigger picture. Khan Academy was an early arrival on the YouTube educational scene. It has a procedural focus and helps people who want answers. I have written elsewhere about Khan Academy.
My question is, what is there for the traumatised? Their lives have been blighted by bad mathematics experiences and we need to make sure there is help for them. In order to develop a more mathematically capable citizenry, we need to be working at all levels. Parents and teachers who feel better about maths will help young learners avoid catching maths trauma.
Success helps people to feel better about maths, so the helping videos embraced by the perplexed may help the traumatized also. However, I would like to do more work in this area, to find out what would help. What topics are relevant and exciting? Will it help to provide links between mathematics and science, art, music, nature, computing, probability, economics and business?
Education does not begin and end at school and higher education. People continue to learn throughout life, and the opportunities to do so through the internet and video are mind-boggling. As a maths communicator, I am keen to provide opportunities for all, including the traumatised, to grow in their understanding of mathematics throughout their life.
Along with Strogatz and my favourite magician, I believe the key lies in the heart. We must show empathy and kindness when reaching out with mathematics.
The enduring memory from my attendance at Talking Maths in Public was the kindness of strangers. The people were an interesting lot and neurodiverse. Everyone was kind, and everyone wanted to make the world a more mathematical and better place.
If you have ideas that can help me in my quest, please comment below. You can also support my work by becoming a YouTube channel member.
And big thanks to Katie, Sam, Ben and Kevin who did such a great job of organising TMIP.