A good deal for maths
noel edmonds' television show Deal or No Deal may be responsible for one of the few positive images of maths in society, academics have found. The show, which attracts 4 million viewers, was one of 30 books, films or TV shows that research at London Metropolitan university and Cardiff university covered for images of the subject.
They included the books and films The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting and websites such as Wikipedia.
Academics also quizzed more than 500 Year 10 students and 100 undergraduates about their perception of mathematicians.
Heather Mendick, of London Metropolitan university, who led the research, said GCSE students saw maths as falling into two distinct types: useful maths, which was connected with manipulating numbers and esoteric maths, which was seen as something that "weird" people did.
Deal or No Deal, which gives contestants a chance to win pound;250,000 by guessing which one of 22 boxes has the money and whether the banker's deal is a better gamble was a rare example of maths that teenagers liked.
Teachers on The TES maths forum also say they play the game in lessons and that it is one way of learning about averages.
The researchers found that mathematicians in books, films and TV programmes were mostly portrayed as obsessional geeks lacking in social skills. They were also seen as old, white, middle-class men.
And while young people were aware the images were cliches, said the team, they could not think of anything more positive to say.
"It's a very sort of stereotypical geek type of person," said one boy asked to describe a mathematician, "but obviously they're not all like that. It is just a sort of an image that is built up in your head from, like, say maths teachers not being the coolest people on the planet. Mathematicians are obviously like a step above them on the maths scale."
Dr Mendick said: "Given the narrow negative cliches associated with maths and mathematicians, it is hardly surprising that relatively few young people want to continue with the subject."
The distinction between "useful" and "esoteric" maths will be reinforced from 2010, when two distinct maths GCSEs are to be introduced. The first will focus on basic numeracy, the second on theoretical topics such as algebra. The change is one of several being made in response to Adrian Smith's report in 2004 which highlighted the dearth of students taking degrees in maths. The findings follow research which found maths was so closely seen as a boys' subject, that even girls doing two maths A-levels did not think they were good at it.