"I particularly enjoyed reading about how conmen manage to take money from people who think they are on to a good deal. Probability is the main thing on the conmen's side."
So wrote an initially reluctant maths AS student of mine, who was frog-marched to the learning resource centre and directed to pick a "suitable" maths book to review.
Review a maths book? It doesn't sound like an obvious way to motivate students, but in the post A-level exam season, a tricky time to keep interest going, I try to get mine to look at maths books that normally get overlooked in favour of revision guides.
This initially meets with even more resistance than finding the books in the first place - some students are bound to assert that they chose maths AS precisely because they wanted to avoid writing essays. However, once it is established that the quality of writing is less important than being able to give a flavour of the book, then your students soon start showing you a side of themselves you rarely see in the maths classroom.
Additionally, this exercise gives some "arty" students, who don't always shine in the maths classroom, a chance to be creative and produce high-quality work.
If writing essay reviews seems counter to the spirit of maths, just consider how many mathematicians attribute the start of their love affair with the subject to books such as Mathematician's Delight by W.W. Sawyer, which puts the principles in layman's terms. Plainly, only a tiny proportion of A-level students will become professional mathematicians, but if some can be persuaded that popular maths books are genuinely entertaining, then we may have established a life-long amateur interest.
Clare Parsons is head of maths at Sir George Monoux Sixth Form College in Walthamstow, east London.
- 1089 and All That by David Acheson is an excellent overview of what maths is all about.
- How to Take a Penalty by Rob Eastaway is good for sporty types.
- Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh is more substantial but always gets a positive reaction. It is full of interesting anecdotes about the history of maths, while also having a narrative thread that makes it read like a thriller.
You can do it too
Short book lists for AS and A2 students can be found on the post-16 area of the Mathematical Association at www.m-a.org.uk. Make sure there are multiple copies on library shelves. Make an attractive display by photocopying the book sleeves and putting them next to the written reviews.