Monday, November 28, 2011

Marcus' mental mathematics mistake

In 2009 Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, teamed up with an unlikely co-presenter,  comedian / actor Alan Davies, to present an episode of Horizon dealing with the joys or otherwise of mathematics - “Alan and Marcus go forth and multiply”. In one part of the documentary the two participate in an experiment to see if the brain of a member of the public who dislikes maths (Davies) and the brain of one of the most recognisable mathematicians on the planet (du Sautoy) process mathematics differently.  However, the interesting thing for me was this clip extracted from the session.

Play this embedded clip and pay particular attention to du Sautoy’s answer to the third question.
I need to make a clear statement here - it is not my intention to take a cheap shot at Marcus du Sautoy - just the opposite in fact.  Later du Sautoy easily answers more complex questions before I, in the comfort of my lounge chair,  have even processed the information required. He admits  that he was nervous about getting simple calculations wrong as it would be embarrassing for a man in his position to do so.  We can also assume that du Sautoy could have insisted that the error be edited out of the program - but clearly he didn’t and this reflects positively on him.

The interesting thing to me was that when nervous or under stress even one of the most prominent minds in the field of mathematics can make a simple errors.  If this holds true for an expert practitioner such as du Sautoy how much more significant might it be for students in school?

This may prompt some to review their teaching practice in mathematics classrooms. Reducing  stressful situations (and for some students stress may result from  something as simple as being required  to provide an answer publicly in class) would surely make the process more enjoyable for all - and it may just remove a barrier to learning.

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