I'm writing something about functions on the board when I hear whispers on the table behind me.
"Are you still going out with Danny?"
"No, we split up; didn't you know?"
"He cheated on me!"
It is pointless to get uptight at this point. You have to work with the conversation. With a sigh, I say: "Let me tell you about Fred, who started going out with a function he thought was nice and even, until it turned out she was a bit odd, so now he's with a periodic function, and yes, they've had their ups and downs ."
The completely sex-free maths lesson does not exist. Every maths teacher will have lost count of the number of times they've said: "That is NOT a pair of nipples; they're turning points!" (I pick my quartics carefully these days.) The research literature quotes the example of a student struggling to get out the word "infinity", but instead says "infidelity" every time.
That said, I usually find the way students get distracted in their maths lessons by talking about their recent sexual conquests (or lack of them) a total bore. So the other day I was interested to observe a colleague teach an English lesson on `Tis Pity She's A Whore, John Ford's 17th century drama. Sex here, far from being an annoying diversion, was the essential subject matter.
"I would like you to come up with five different seduction strategies used in this passage ."
Why chat off the subject when the subject matter of the lesson itself is so chatworthy? "Are you still going out with Danny?" - exactly the discussion required for the analysis of this text. The students reported back: "His first strategy was to lie to her."
Can lying really be a seduction technique? Young people relate to the idea of lying. Unless they are really extraordinarily virtuous, they will be experimenting with telling untruths themselves. To be able to explore this in the context of their learning, within a classroom, is exciting - an invitation to forbidden fruit.
The lives of mathematicians often contained plenty of drama that can break up a lesson with human levity. Maybe then maths will not seem quite so chaste and pure and our students will not feel the need to ask about Danny quite so much.
Jonny Griffiths teaches at Paston College in Norfolk
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