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19 March 2008


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I put your question to my mathematician husband and he agreed with you that mental arithmetic will get you to the same result in a calculation but it will take ten times longer. He also said that we could not have formulas without algebra. I take his word on trust!

I recall my first lesson in algebra vividly. My maths teacher was Sister Dolores, who must have been in her 80s at the time,(she had taught the grandmothers of some of the girls in my class). The teacher's desk was on a raised platform and Sr D stood at the centre facing us and said "I am at zero", then she turned right and counted five steps and said "Now I am plus 5". She walked back to the centre and said, "I am zero", then five steps to the left, " I am minus 5". She then asked us where she would be if she walked 15 steps to the right from that spot and one bright spark called out "Off the rostrum!" We were all put in detention for being disrespectful and that was algebra for us until Sr D retired the following year.

Ours was an excellent convent grammar school in every other respect!

I made a mess of A level maths but I see the point of algebra. It helps with generalisations. If you know that most buses run ten minutes late then the expected time of arrival of a bus is (a+10). For 'a' put in the advertised time. If buses from Derbyshire are delayed by an extra 5 minutes then use the formula (a+10+5). If on some routes there is a problem with a bus pass that takes 4 minutes to sort out for each passenger then the total delay is (a+10+[e x 4}) where 'e' is the number of passengers over 60. Doing the algebra in your head stops you losing your temper.

Thank you for the feedback! I do hope that everyone realised that this post was meant to be ever so slightly tongue in cheek ...

Sadly, even your erudite arguments for algebra still haven't convinced me. It takes only a second or two for me to divide one figure by four - or whatever- and compare it with a similar figure, so, in terms of time saving, we're probably talking nano-seconds here. And, at my age, I guess I can live with that.

As far as attempting to use algebra to work out bus timetables is concerned - fairly theoretical for me as there are no buses where I live - I'd be more likely to lose my temper trying to get my head round equations. The mere sight of letters with brackets round them is likely to bring on a mild panic attack and miserable memories of adolescent failure.

On a serious note, however, if teachers are to engage children and young people in maths (well, any subject come to that), they have to have, first and foremost, superb language and communication skills and the ability to turn dry facts into something fascinating and relevant. (Gradgrinds not wanted on voyage.) It can be done; I've seen it done in two of the colleges I worked with and it was inspirational.

PS What are trigonometry and logarithms for? I just thought I'd ask.

A quick off-the-top-of-the-head answer to PS. Trigonometry is to work out measurements of objects that are too big for a tape measure - by measuring angles (with a protractor if needs be) and logarithms used to be for converting large numbers - that couldn't be easily multiplied or divided - into powers of 10 and checking them against log tables. Now that everyone uses calculators they may have gone the same way as the slide rule and the abacus.

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Thought for life

  • The House of Breath, William Goyen
    We are the carriers of lives and legends - who knows the unseen frescoes on the private walls of the skull?

Thinking about . . .

  • Daniel Klein, Travels with Epicurus
    I too listen to music more and more. Throughout my life, music has stirred me more than any other art form, and now, in old age, I find myself listening to it almost every evening, usually alone, for hours at a time.
  • Julia Blackburn, Thin Paths
    I began writing because I liked to write things down. I learnt foreign languages because they seemed to enter my head by a process of osmosis.
  • Joan Bakewell, Stop the Clocks
    I live contentedly alone. It's better that way and I am often thoughtful about what has been and what might have been. There are many like me.
  • Patti Smith, M Train
    Oh to be reborn within the pages of a book.
  • Patti Smith, M Train
    Why is it that we lose the things we love, and things cavalier cling to us and will be the measure of our worth after we’re gone?
  • Judith Kerr, Observer Magazine, 22 November 2015
    I don't believe in God. I find it much easier to believe in ancestors. I like to imagine they are pointing us in the right direction.

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