Maths - Adding up to greatness

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

Jonny Griffiths

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?

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Jonny Griffiths

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