Editorial - There's a formula for teaching beauty

6th June 2014 at 01:00

When the manager of Manchester City Football Club, Manuel Pellegrini, got his sums wrong in December last year, he soon found that the beautiful game had an ugly side. His failure to calculate how many goals his side needed to beat Bayern Munich to qualify as Champions League group winner earned him taunts from his own supporters, whose chant cruelly highlighted his lack of mathematical skills: "Pellegrini whoah-oh-oh, Pellegrini whoah-oh-oh, he came from Malaga, he's shit at algebra."

A good knowledge of mathematics is obviously useful whoever you are. We need it to solve problems, both in the dizzy realms of international football and in our everyday lives, and the hapless Mr Pellegrini could have benefited from a lesser-known A-level in the "use of mathematics", were it not for Ofqual's axe wielded on this and 23 other subjects this week.

He could also learn a thing or two from the Panini World Cup sticker book, favourite of football-mad children and men the world over. This, The Economist tells us, can give collectors a lesson in probability, as well as the value of statistical tests, supply and demand, and the importance of liquidity.

However, unlike Mr Pellegrini, who apologised for his errors, most adults in this country seem unembarrassed by their lack of mathematical prowess and set a bad example to children, according to education minister Liz Truss, with their poor numeracy skills costing the country pound;20 billion a year.

This so-called anti-maths culture contrasts sharply with the "can-do attitude" of Pisa darling Shanghai, who topped the international league table for maths, and from whom the government is borrowing up to 60 teachers to help us brush up on our teaching methods.

There is, of course, no subject more polarising than maths: people either hate it intensely or love it with a passion. And those devotees pursue it not for its utility but for its beauty and joy. "The mathematician does not study pure mathematics because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it and he delights in it because it is beautiful," the great mathematician J H Poincar wrote.

This beauty is not in the eye of the beholder: many of life's most wondrous things are mathematical, not subjective. The golden ratio, which derives from the Fibonacci sequence, is sometimes called the formula for beauty and is to be found all around us, in faces, spiral galaxies, petals, snail shells and hurricanes.

Maths teacher Jonny Griffiths is one of the devotees. Conveying his subject's pulchritude and captivating his students with the exquisiteness of equations and the allure of algebra is a challenge he rises to year after year. He says that he has three raw goals in his teaching: exam results, group work and, the most important of all, to initiate his classes into "the human conversation that is mathematics" and teach them to appreciate its aesthetic attractions.

Testing, marking and a utilitarian syllabus all fail to diminish his desire to beguile his students with the exquisite elegance of his subject. "I want us to be able to look back at our hours in my classroom together as a time of wonder. I want them to learn that everyone on this Earth is a mathematician even if they don't know it yet," he says.

And that, one presumes, would include future football managers.



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