A room where two plus two does not equal five

18th March 2016 at 00:00

Room 101, introduced in the climax of the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a torture chamber in the Ministry of Love, in which the Party attempts to subject a prisoner to his or her own worst nightmare, fear or phobia, with the object of breaking down their resistance.

The concept of the BBC television show of the same name is that famous figures discuss their pet hates and compete with each other to have them consigned to Room 101.

A few weeks ago, “numbers” were condemned to the vault by host Frank Skinner.

They were deemed by Skinner to be more offensive than stinky cheese – the choice of former footballer-turned-pundit Ian Wright – and hangovers, which was comedian Noel Fielding’s choice.

Pulling the handle to remove numbers from the world forever, Skinner said: “I know it’s going to be a bit weird if I take all the numbers out of the world, but I have struggled with numbers a lot in my life.

“We all have,” he continued, gesturing towards Wright, Fielding and the actor Joanna Scanlon (who made the pitch for numbers to be banished in the first place). “It’s a real problem,” he added.

Even the fact that his show would now be called simply Room could not deter him.

This sums up the scale of the challenge that the Making Maths Count team faces.

The Scottish government has charged this group – led by Glasgow’s director of education and former maths teacher Maureen McKenna – with encouraging greater enthusiasm for maths among pupils.

Today, it publishes its interim report. It calls for new national qualifications to be revamped as the Making Maths Count team believes that they could be putting pupils off taking the subject further.

The group also wants it to be a requirement for all teachers to have studied Higher maths and for there to be more of a focus on maths teaching in initial teacher education.

In the report, the group calls, too, for the maths equivalent of the Bookbug programme, which aims to boost literacy by encouraging parents to read to their children from the age of 1 onwards. Too many parents are nervous of numbers, the group says.

The report also acknowledges that the anxiety often associated with maths has to be addressed. McKenna talks about the need to ensure that children have “a growth mindset” when it comes to maths, so that they don’t just think they are good or bad and that’s it, but instead believe that if they work at it, they will improve.

On Room 101, making her case for the banishment of numbers, Scanlan said: “I can’t cope with numbers. When I hear a number, my brain just goes [makes spluttering noises] and I just stop listening and panic.”

It is the case that some people are predisposed to maths while others are not, McKenna acknowledges. It took her three goes to make a mathematician, she jokes, referring to the fact that her youngest son is the only one of her three children to share her love of numbers. However, everyone has the potential to be confident and competent in the subject, she believes.

Clearly Wright, Skinner, Fielding and Scanlan are all successful despite their lack of love for the subject. So does it matter if some people are no good with numbers?

Well, yes, it does. It matters not because they’re no good but because they’re afraid. And while living with fear might be part and parcel of life in George Orwell’s superstate, Oceania, it shouldn’t be a model for 21st-century schools.

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