Rob Eastaway: Fun subtracts from the real joy of maths

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THE news is full of stories about the growing numbers of unemployed, but there is still one skill that employers say is in desperately short supply. Mathematics. Last week it was the computer games industry complaining of a shortage of candidates with strong maths skills. Next week it will probably be the engineers.

For the last decade there has been a growing belief that the solution to this maths problem is to make the subject more fun. By making maths fun, those children that would otherwise disengage at 13 and leave the subject at the earliest opportunity because it is “boring” and “hard” will see the light and leave school thinking only of the joy of maths. And we mathematicians all know that maths is fun. We just need to tell everyone else.

Or maybe not.

I have grown to regard the word fun as an f-word that, like a few others, should not to be used in the maths classroom.

How can I be saying this? Because I’ve realised that if you have to tell somebody that something is fun, it means that you have lost the argument. I also believe that calling something “fun” inadvertently trivialises it. The subliminal message is that fun things are not important things. And in any case, the notion of fun is extremely subjective. One person’s fun is another person’s worst nightmare. Want to come to my next karaoke evening? That’ll be fun.

Being told that something is fun simply doesn’t work if you don’t already believe it. If somebody told you that (say) trainspotting was fun, it wouldn’t convert you, it would make you think: “These people are clearly on a different planet.” Those who aren’t maths converts react the same way to being told maths is fun.

Some people in the media also seem to be part of a conspiracy to use the word “fun” as a method of sidelining maths. I was once invited onto the Today programme on Radio 4 to talk about (I thought) the creative side of maths.

To my horror, the presenter James Naughtie waved me to my seat, then confronted me with what rugby players call a hospital pass. His opening gambit was: “So Mr Eastaway, make maths fun for us.” To this day, I’m still not sure what decent response he was expecting to that request, though it would have been tempting to reply: “OK, but first Mr Naughtie, you have 30 seconds to make politics fun for me.”

I realise I’ll now be making quite a few maths teachers feel a bit awkward. I’ve lost count of the number of schools where I’ve seen “Maths Is Fun” emblazoned on the wall, or where a teacher introducing me before a talk has told the somewhat disaffected-looking group of teenagers that they are about to really enjoy themselves.

Of course I’m not arguing against making maths an enjoyable experience. Quite the reverse. But the enjoyment doesn’t come from telling people they are having fun, it comes from pupils discovering it for themselves.

And children do have to be set off on the right path. I know plenty of ways to turn a child off maths, for example by demonstrating how to solve a quadratic equation without ever explaining why this might be important.

But I’m convinced that almost anyone can be drawn into maths if they are presented with something intriguing or surprising which prompts them to want to investigate. This can be a bit of fake “mind-reading”, a puzzle with a catchy story line, or the discovery of an unexpected pattern (try multiplying together the numbers 3 x 7 x 11 x 13 x 37 on your calculator right now, and you’ll see what I mean).

And “having fun” doesn’t always mean a laugh a minute. Children can have superficially fun experiences by spending all their lessons playing games, but if those games only contain a token element of maths, then “having fun” becomes a byword for dumbing down and avoiding the meat of the subject.

Like climbing a Lakeland hill on a wet day, it’s often the experience of finishing that provides most of the enjoyment – the satisfaction of having come through a difficult challenge and looking back. Saying, “hey, that was fun” is usually more credible than “hey, this will be fun”.

Maths can be stimulating, exciting, rewarding and creative. That is an experience that most of us want everyone to share, whatever their attitude to maths. But please don’t call it fun. I’m deadly serious.