Tuesday, 10 January 2017

My maths autobiography

This is a brief response to chapter one of Tracy Johnston Zager's wonderful Becoming the Math Teacher You Wish You'd Had. It's not the typical maths learning experience she describes there, but it's mine.

Paddington Green Primary School was a chaotic kind of place. Once, at least, a supply teachers left crying within the hour. And there were a lot of supply teachers. I don't remember a lot about it (except about Ivor Cutler). But I know the maths teaching was practically non-existent. Sometimes loads of sums on the board.

But my mum loved maths. Unlike her brothers she'd not been allowed to go to university, but she did train in electrical engineering at the BBC's college in Evesham.

She didn't 'teach me maths'. We did play a lot of games though.

I said these words about my mum at her funeral:
And yes, we played chess. And battleships, and boxes, and draughts. And backgammon. And Chinese chess, and Go. And Mah-Jong and Hanafuda. Endless games of Totopoly and Cluedo. With Peter too. Monopoly we weren’t so keen on, but we played it when Tad came home. Then there was Diplomacy (you didn’t like the garish board) and of course Scrabble. There was something mathematical in all this, the best kind of mathematical.
When I was in my teens we used to get a magazine called Games and Puzzles. We tried out lots of the games, and often the puzzles. My mum had a lot more patience for them than I did.

My secondary school maths was probably a bit better than the average. I got my 'O'-level, got my 'A'-level. But given the average wasn't so hot, I was never A. really excited, B. awed, C. exploring for myself.

No, there was some exploring. When I was 14 (in 1974) there was the possibility of computing in the maths classroom, outside of lesson times. There were two teleprinters. One of them was connected to a telephone. You could dial the City of London Polytechnic mainframe, there'd be a wrrr-weee-wbong-wbong noise and you'd put the receiver into a wooden box with a receiver-shaped insides, and the teleprinter was connected. About half a dozen of us became obsessed. We were writing programs in BASIC, learning it all by trial and error, no books, no teacher. We stayed in at breaktimes, and after school until about 8pm when the caretaker would come in shocked to find us still there and shout at us to get out of the building.  I wrote things like a program to play a race game. You printed out the track, rewound the paper and then ran the race. You could accelerate or decelerate either left-right or up-down by one each time.

While one person was on the connected teleprinter the other was on the other, typing their program. You then printed out as punched tape ready to feed in to the online teleprinter when it was your turn.
File:Punched tape.jpg
punched tape - source
 There was always a bug when you ran the program; I'd go home scrutinising the lines of code on the 36 bus. It was really compulsive, the adrenaline of the hunt, if that doesn't sound too overblown. I still have some of this stuff. Here's a page of the program for that game:
The first of two pages of the program to run the race game
The game:
The race (coloured in after)
I wrote a program to play Monopoly (!), one to print out a graph of weather data we'd collected on our balcony at home (I had to ask my maths teacher how to smooth the graph out - the only time I asked any teacher how to do something I wanted to  do! - he knew too: I needed a moving average), there was also a game where spaceships were in 3D space, accelerating and decelerating and shooting at each other (I worked out that I needed what I later learnt was Pythagoras' theorem).

Because it was a bit obsessive and I wanted to give more time to other things, I gave it up when I was 17. But I learnt so much from it.

I did 'Natural Sciences' at Cambridge, mainly biological kinds of things, with some history and philosophy of science thrown in. There were some maths lectures, on the basis of the statistics we were using, but I didn't really keep up. One thing I did do however, I read Martin Gardner's pieces in the Scientific American, then bought his books. That was the kind of maths I actually enjoyed.

So when I began teaching in primary, I had a fairly strong feel about what the real thing is: play, invention, the thrill of the hunt. I'd also been given Seymour Papert's 'Mindstorms' (pdf) to read at teacher training college, which, taking kids' free exploration of the Logo programming language as its theme, strengthened what I felt already. All this got worn down by all sorts of pressures, tests, National Curriculums, Numeracy Strategies, and most of all by having virtually no training or real ongoing professional development as a teacher.

Of course, all that has changed now, with the #MTBoS...

Thanks, Tracy.

1 comment:

  1. need a little help with one of your patterns on visualpatterns.org

    Trying to figure out the next figures appearance for pattern number 80....Can you tell me what the next two pictures look like and explain...any help would be great...have been working on this one for hours:) email me please