07 OCTOBER 2016
Could you tell us a little about your background?
I was a good student at primary school, enjoying pretty much everything. If any one subject stood out for me, it was science - I was fascinated by the cupboard of dusty scientific equipment at the back of our classroom! At secondary school, my first year was a bit of a disaster, putting me in the bottom set for maths in my second year. With a great teacher, and feeling more settled generally, not only did I do much better at maths, I started to really enjoy it too. A levels meant maths, physics and chemistry, followed by a degree course in natural sciences - I was all set to be the next Marie Curie (my idol at the time!). That all fell apart in my first year at university when I discovered that I was useless at practical chemistry - I realised I’d calculated what the answer ought to be, and then made my experiment ‘work’! Disillusioned, I abandoned science and maths for theology.
Maths cropped up again when, with two small children, a third on the way and a fourth a couple of years later, I decided that what I needed to keep my head out of the nappy bucket was an Open University course - and maths would mean I wouldn’t have to find time to write essays. I discovered all over again how much I enjoyed doing maths, and not only did I get a maths degree, I found a new career - as a maths teacher. The OU - a brilliant institution - also gave me the opportunity later on to research my practice as a teacher of maths through a part-time PhD.
What interests you in mathematics?
For me, maths is about pattern and generality as much as anything. I loved finding a pattern which I could explore and analyse, discovering how things which seemed quite different initially were really all examples of one underlying truth; and for many years, algebra was the main tool I used in my exploration. Over time, I gradually came to see how geometry fitted in as well, but like many other students and teachers, I really didn’t look forward to the weeks when probability was on the syllabus. The early stages were easy enough (and seemed a bit pointless) and then it suddenly got not just hard, but really unintuitive. As a teacher, I could be pretty sure when my answer was correct and the answer in the back of the text book was wrong in most areas of maths - but not in probability. So when I was asked to teach probability and statistics on a 10-day course of teacher development in South Africa (with AIMSSEC) I groaned - and only agreed to do it because I was so keen to grasp the opportunity of teaching in a different country, and taking some time to visit it.
Why are you interested in probability?
In South Africa, probability had been an optional part of the syllabus, so very few people either taught it, or had been taught it themselves. Teaching the South African teachers was just like trying to teach my classes back home - they found it difficult and they really didn’t get it. Each time I went back to teach the course, I experimented with different ways of trying to get the concepts across.
Earlier in my mathematical journey, I enjoyed maths for its own sake, focusing on the beauty of pure maths and the power of the connections between seemingly different areas. This changed through my work for the MMP on their Motivate Project, in which I facilitated interactions between professional mathematicians and school children via videoconference, and in due course presented topics of my own. Some of these mathematicians, among them David Spiegelhalter worked on applied problems, and I became fascinated with the power of maths to model real-life situations.
Meeting David Spiegelhalter through videoconferences we worked on together was transformative. David’s first conference with us was based on the ‘bacon sandwich’ headline - 20% greater chance of getting cancer if you eat bacon sandwiches! - and introduced me to his way of working with whole numbers, corresponding to individual people.
The rest, as they say, is history!
The fruits of that encounter, both with David, and with his way of approaching probability, are in this book (Teaching Probability). I’ve discovered the joy of using maths to work on human problems, not just mathematical problems, and that probability is not only the most useful bit of maths for understanding our world, but also genuinely interesting and exciting.
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