Celebrity calculators

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Introducing famous mathematicians makes theorems real, says Alastair Cornish

You can or you can't do maths. That is what I am told all the time by people I meet. People can remember some of their school science, a lot of history and geography, maybe some language and large amounts of English lessons. Why?

Well, I believe it has a lot to do with telling stories (and something to do with liking the subject). In all of the above subjects, some of the teaching can be done by watching a video or by hanging the topic on something real, tangible or by having a story attached. With maths, this can be difficult, especially when a lot of today's teachers don't have a maths degree and know little or nothing of its history.

And it's the history of maths that can lend itself to a more interesting and memorable lesson. I agree that, for some, kinaesthetic methods such as playing with dice will achieve results, but this isn't always practical or possible. There is, however, another way.

Take, for instance, Pythagoras's theorem: the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides. We can prove it by cutting up pieces of paper and sticking them in our books. We can draw semicircles and squares to demonstrate the principles. But, hang on, Pythagoras was a real bloke. He lived a long time ago, but he existed and led a pretty interesting life. We have the perfect story with which to introduce his theorem.

Pythagoras of Samos was born around 596bc. He travelled extensively, setting up schools to teach mathematics, geometry, music and reincarnation.

After time in Egypt where he trained as a priest in Diospolis, he returned to Samos to form a school known as the semicircle of Pythagoras. He then moved to Croton (now Crotone) in Italy where the students had very few possessions and were vegetarian.

Pythagoras looked at many of the mathematical concepts we take for granted, such as odd and even numbers, triangular numbers, perfect numbers and, of course, geometry and the right-angled triangle. He was obsessed with proof in the abstract sense, and thought that the whole cosmos was a scale and a number.

You might think that this is a lot to ponder, but maybe some discussions could stem from these basic biographical facts. Cross-curricular themes are already starting to emerge. Obviously, students don't need to know all of this to pass the exam, but it might be an aid to learning to encourage some of them to take an interest in the topic. Also, research into Pythagorean Triples can confound existing beliefs. Some of my students went to see the Babylonian tablet Plimpton 322, which showed Pythagorean Triples, and was dated c1900 to 1600bc, some 1,100 years before the man himself.

Building a story can help students learn and remember, and even engender discussions on other topics as they overlap. It even helped me with an April Fool's joke I played on my Year 11s some years ago. Explaining that they needed to know some of the origins of the maths they were doing, I got them to draw a timeline. On it, we placed various ancient but prominent mathematicians and what they had contributed. Pythagoras was there, as was Archimedes, Eratosthenes and his sieve, Euclid, plus a few more. It progressed through al-Khwarizmi to his fellow Arabian, Al-Prilla (becoming April) and his school Fullalla (Fool)!

A laugh? Yes. Good revision? Definitely. Plus they remembered it. After the exam a few weeks later, several told me how that lesson had helped them remember the facts they required.

As an end of term or year project, I have also had students pick a few mathematicians from a list. Using the internet, they then research them and write a short piece on each. Again, this involves research and cross-curricular skills.

I'm not saying it will help everyone, but it might generate interest for some, where there was none before. Maths does not have to be the dry subject many see it as, but it takes a little bit of effort to dress it up.

Alastair Cornish has been teaching maths for 10 years, first in London, then in Cardiff

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