Drawn to tests on real footing

20th January 2006 at 00:00
Wid anyone else see that half-hour TV programme celebrating 70 years of the Broons? I found it very enjoyable and take great heart from the information that, in a recent poll, Maggie was voted the sexiest person in Scotland - ever. Lesser nations would have picked a "here today, gone tomorrow" actor or pop babe, but not us.

Equally refreshingly, the contributors to the show eschewed post-modernist irony and appreciated the cartoon strip for what it is. It was mentioned that the Broons are not representative of the way life is lived in Scotland today, but this was not seen as a problem. Contrast with po-faced articles in the student newspapers of my youth, where the Oor Wullie cartoon strip was criticised because PC Murdoch didn't throw Wullie down the stairs of the polis station after having his helmet knocked off with a snowball. All art should be socially relevant, eh?

Relevance in maths problems is a MacGuffin, says Professor Dylan - I can never remember if he is inside or outside the black box - Wiliam. I could pretend I came across these thoughts when I was scouring the internet for the latest thinking on formative assessment. In fact, I was looking for a picture of the professor to incorporate in a spoof end-of-term video I was making.

A MacGuffin is something used in a Hitchcock film to motivate the action - stolen papers for example. Beyond this, little attention is paid to it in the film. So it is with "real life" and "realistic" settings for maths questions in many cases.

Take the following example: "A girl has three pairs of each of three different kinds of socks in a drawer, and is about to select a pair of socks to wear to the disco when there is a power failure. How many socks does she need to take from the drawer to be sure of getting a matching pair?"

Clearly, she needs to take only two socks because if Kitty is going to a disco it doesn't really matter because no one is going to care about her socks. Just her dancing.

That answer would get no marks but arguably demonstrates better thinking than "Four". A real-life context has been given, so the person answering uses her knowledge of real life to challenge the assumptions in the question. But that's not what you were supposed to do. You were supposed to say "Hey, maths isn't just something you do in the classroom," then get on with it.

There was a great deal more to Professor Wiliam's piece than I can convey here, but what he wrote was just as relevant to science and particularly physics.

Whit's Horace daein in a lift wi a bag o' sugar on the end o' a spring balance? Michty!

Gregor Steele was given a Broons book for Christmas.

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