Hang ups

21st February 1997 at 00:00
I'm worried about the divisional manager of Playmates plc. He is in charge of marketing the Frizzle and he is in a quandary. He knows that an increase in price results in a reduction in sales. But, with pages of figures to juggle, how can he calculate the optimum price to maintain his current level of profit? Before you start worrying too much about it, I'd better say that Frizzle and Playmates plc are totally fictitious. The divisional manager, however, is another matter. I think you might know him.

Tantalising snippets of his biography used to appear in maths textbooks although he was usually referred to as "A Man", occasionally "A Certain Man", and sometimes more mysteriously as "A Man (A)". He was the chap who, before taking a train from London to York, went to enormous lengths to determine its velocity, and the distance it had to cover, but he invariably forgot to find out the one thing he desperately wanted to know - when it would get there. It was he who tried to fill a bath of given cubic capacity, with water at a given rate - but neglected to take the simple precaution of first placing the plug in the hole.

A Man had generations of pupils racing through log books on his behalf. And a jolly good job we made of it. Presumably, if it weren't for our sterling efforts, he would never have landed the prestigious post of divisional manager - or moved out of the maths books into the far more exciting world of IT. You can catch up with his adventures (don't be fooled by his many aliases) in the exercises concocted for fearless souls who have decided to master the intricacies of spreadsheets.

My niece, Lucy, is among their number. She has done well all term on her IT course but found herself completely stumped by Task 7(c) - calculating the optimum price for the Frizzle. Having devoted three long evenings to the problem, she turned for help to her dear old uncle. After all, he writes about computers in a prestigious weekly journal.

It was with some embarrassment that I had to confess to her that, despite having written many a stirring paragraph on the miracle of spreadsheets, I have never quite got round to learning how to use one. She sighed in that pitying way 17-year-olds do, and, turning to Task 1(a), set about giving me a crash course on everything she knew about Microsoft's Excel.

It was riveting. I can't remember ever learning so much so quickly. I discovered that spreadsheets were every bit as ingenious as I've always maintained they were. What's more - two heads being better than one - Lucy and I could tackle the Frizzle problem. By midnight, we had cracked nested formulae (I'll tell you about them some time) and had saved the divisional manager's bacon.

But I also learnt something else that night. Lucy found it easy to assume the role of teacher, but I did not like being her pupil one tiny bit. For crying out loud, it was me who taught this child how to tie up her shoelaces! Deep in my bones, I felt that I was the one who was supposed to know; that, by taking lessons from Lucy, I had upset the natural order of things; I had broken some fundamental commandment. For one evening, I felt total sympathy for all those technophobic teachers whose hackles rise when they are told: "Don't worry. Just let the kids teach you how to use computers."

Inevitably, this will have to happen. There are teachers who will have to overcome their deep-seated inhibitions and, when it comes to IT, allow their pupils to be in charge. Incidentally, if the kids start getting too big for their boots, they can always be given log tables and set the problem about the bath and the plug hole. That should cut them down to size.


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