Mission to sell maths magic

15th October 2004 at 01:00
Warwick Mansell talks to Celia Hoyles about her appointment as the Government's new maths tsar

Could television be the Government's new weapon in its desperate battle to persuade more young people to persevere with the study of mathematics?

Celia Hoyles appointed to act as a cheerleader and advocate for the subject as the new maths "tsar", certainly thinks so. And she should know.

Professor Hoyles, an eminent academic, may be the country's only maths educator who might give Carol Vorderman a run for her money as a populariser of the subject. She spent three years co-presenting a prime-time TV programme which brought brain-twisters to the masses.

From 1987 to 1990, she worked on Fun and Games, an ITV show that at one stage attracted 10 million viewers. Members of the audience would be set a problem, and if they got stuck, she would be on hand to help them out.

Professor Hoyles, 58, who had such a love of maths as a child that she used to teach the subject to her two older sisters at home, said: "It was great fun to do, and I think part of my role was to show how wonderful and powerful maths can be.

"I was instructed not to talk like a teacher, because, I was told, people would not want to tune in at 7pm and watch a maths lesson.

"But I think we were successful. We used to get a lot of people writing in suggesting alternative answers to questions."

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that one of her first goals in her new job, which starts in December, will be to use the medium to fire public interest in the subject.

Professor Hoyles said she still had contacts in TV, which she would use to try to turn this idea into reality: "It would be great to get someone like Melvyn Bragg doing a series, or a documentary strand like Horizon taking up the challenge," she said.

She was hesitant about whether shows such as Fun and Games could survive in prime-time now, but said there should always be a place for programmes which brought to life the magic of maths and problem-solving.

She recognises that this need is acute, because of the dramatic fall in the number of people studying the subject at A-level, and continuing teacher shortages.

Professor Hoyles was appointed by Charles Clarke, Education Secretary, following this year's Smith report on the crisis facing the subject.

One of her main tasks will be to push for the introduction of a new centre for excellent maths teaching, which could open by 2006.

Few could claim to be better qualified. Professor Hoyles's TV work forms a tiny part of her staggeringly long CV, which over 35 years has seen her become one of Britain's most respected maths educators.

In April, she became the first winner of a prestigious award from the International Commission on Mathematical Instruction for her "seminal" research on the use of technology in maths education.

Her research has included overseeing a project in which pupils designed, built and shared computer games. She is also an expert on computer-mathematical skills in the workplace, analysing students' mathematical reasoning and conceptions of proof in secondary maths.

Professor Hoyles's husband, Richard Noss is, like her, a professor of mathematics education at London university's institute of education.

Teacher magazine 31

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