On the bus to work the other day, I enjoyed listening to a TED Talk by someone who is in love with prime numbers – the bigger the better for him. Adam Spencer introduces himself as a breakfast radio host who loves maths and science. I was intrigued by the stereotypes he broke in his introduction alone.
During his talk, Spencer excitedly announces that a new prime number has recently been discovered and that this is HUGE news. It’s hard not to get caught up in his excitement.
Passion for a topic
What I enjoyed most about this TED Talk is Spencer’s passion for the topic. Prime numbers may seem pretty dry for some, but it’s clearly big news for those who love number patterns (or numbers that break them).
I’ve always maintained that I would happily listen to someone talking any topic they choose so long as they were passionate about it. Accounting processes – why not? Writing legislation? Sure thing! At a party recently, I was talking to a policy analyst who was very excited (yes, excited!) about an upcoming job interview. He talked about some of the research he and his colleagues had been doing recently on topics as varied as meeting government objectives to investigating legal highs. Although I’m not likely to follow his career path any time soon, I genuinely enjoyed listening to him describe something he loves to do; his enthusiasm truly was infectious.
A passion for numeracy
I think that we’re generally pretty good at acknowledging the place of literacy in all its forms in our daily lives. As a society, we are getting better at celebrating literary success. We give ourselves permission to love literacy and it’s not unusual for people to talk about their favourite books or make suggestions for other readers. So why are we less passionate about numeracy and numbers? A recent UK publication, Voices of adult maths learners, identified that “… the biggest single factor in adults not taking up maths learning is fear” (National Institute of Adult Continuing Education 2013, p. 3). I find this climate of fear truly alarming and a sad consequence of lost opportunities.
I don’t know anyone who would casually scoff that they can’t read or write (and don’t want to know how) in the same way that it seems acceptable for people to ‘admit’ that they don’t like maths and were never any good at it but simply don’t care. The only exception seems to be spelling and grammar. Is this a defensive or protective strategy, where it’s easier to feign disinterest than admit fear or failure? How do we as educators go about dismantling this attitude and instead build positivity and excitement for such a vital set of life skills?
I had a primary school teacher who loved science and was particularly passionate about astronomy and geology. To this day, I enjoy a more than fleeting interest in both fields and am amazed at how much I remember learning about them from 30 years ago. Would our issues with child and adult numeracy would be different if those who are fearful of maths had a teacher or mentor who was passionate about numbers in the same way as my teacher loved science?
National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (2013). Voices of adult maths learners. Retrieved November 1, 2013, from http://shop.niace.org.uk/media/catalog/product/v/o/voices_of_maths_learners-web_1_1.pdf