Maths - Adding up to greatness

This film has a good end-of-term lesson - it's OK to be wrong

How do you handle the last lesson of term? As pupils sense the impending holidays, any attempt to teach right up to the final moment can be doomed. My way out is to show Simon Singh's renowned documentary on Andrew Wiles' solution to Fermat's last theorem (pictured above). Now available on YouTube, this 50 minutes represents (in my humble opinion) the best mathematics ever filmed. I must have watched it 30 times now and, just as a devout believer learns a sacred text by heart, so I can remember every word and every camera angle. And it always reduces me to tears.

The video opens with Andrew (it feels wrong to call him "Wiles" here) on the edge of tears himself as he tries to convey how special it was to finally discover his proof. My pupils may have cried about maths themselves, but never for positive reasons, and to meet this rather awkward man who was so moved by his love of mathematics is startling.

"Is this going to be funny?" Mark, a pupil, asks me. Two minutes in and we have a view of Andrew's desk, a foot deep in papers, journals, doodling and doubtless the odd biscuit. "I thought you said this wasn't going to be funny," Mark says.

We learn how Andrew decided to work alone on this problem for seven years, night and day, without telling colleagues what he was doing. "Don't mathematicians share their stuff?" asks another pupil, with some annoyance, and it seems that some of the other mathematics professors at Princeton University, a truly stellar list of names, agree with her.

The programme reaches its climax as Andrew explains his final step. "Do you understand this stuff, Jonny?" a pupil asks innocently, and I shift a little uneasily in my seat. "Oh yes, no problem, Tom."

Then the story takes a twist - there is a mistake in Andrew's proof. Now here is something that all my young learners can appreciate: you hand in your work, someone marks it and you have got something wrong. Andrew's mistake is one that maybe only three people in the world could have spotted, but it is a mistake, nonetheless. So the programme has a second climax as Andrew, after intense pain, resolves his error.

"I've had the rare privilege," Andrew tells his audience, "of being able to pursue my childhood dream in my adult life." I look around my class as they troop out and hope some of them will fulfil their own childhood dreams. "What were my dreams at your age?" I whisper to myself.

Jonny Griffiths teaches maths at a sixth-form college

What else?

See Andrew Wiles' moving story on YouTube now and inspire your class to follow their dreams. Only got five minutes? Try a synopsis from BBC Class Clips - Maths.

Emphasise the importance of checking your work carefully with a fantastic mock paper from Andrew Jeffrey.

From the forums

Teachers debate the suggestion of Peter Lacey, from the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, that schools should focus on developing pupils' confidence in maths slowly rather than racing ahead. Do you think this is really possible given the demands of the curriculum?

Find all links and resources at www.tes.co.ukresources027.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Latest stories

GCSEs: Do grades really predict earnings?

As research is published around the impact GCSE grades have on future earnings, principal Ian Pryce calls for insight into whether vocational grades behave in a similar way
Ian Pryce 25 Jul 2021

FE chatter: The olympics, college dogs and careers

We’ve trawled FE Twitter to pull out this week’s best tweets from the further education sector
Tes Reporter 24 Jul 2021

When term ended, Kirsty Walker was determined she'd get her fill of sun, sea and sangria...
Kirsty Walker 24 Jul 2021

How Ofsted will inspect reception classes next year

Ofsted sets out how its inspections will work in reception classes once the new Early Years Foundation Stage framework launches
John Roberts 24 Jul 2021

'Break rules': How can leaders defy macho culture?

Long read: Could a more diverse school leadership help tackle sexual abuse and harassment in the classroom - of teachers and pupils?
Claudia Civinini 24 Jul 2021

Reading program fails to boost progress, study shows

An EEF evaluation found pupils using Accelerated Reader did not make additional progress compared to pupils in schools not using the programme
Claudia Civinini 23 Jul 2021

Podcast: End of a year of 'unprecedented disruption'

The Tes news team on the big stories of the academic year 20/21, the teacher pay freeze, record absence rates and Oak Academy's future
Dave Speck 23 Jul 2021

The lessons learned from a school penalty shoot-out

When his class asked why the England team had lost because penalties were easy, this teacher found a demonstration was better than an explanation
Omari Barton-Ellington 23 Jul 2021

3 golden rules for whole-school reading approaches

Focusing on literacy across the curriculum is a big task – and it starts with 'eating the frog' early, says this leader
Kate McCabe 23 Jul 2021

Why you need to think twice before 'punishing' a pupil

Payback should never be the motivation for a behaviour sanction, so make sure your decisions are based on what's best for the pupil rather than on raw emotion
Jarlath O'Brien 23 Jul 2021