Fingers on buzzers, here’s your starter for 10: how can we make teenagers love maths?
This was not a question that I was ever asked on University Challenge, where I captained Emmanuel College Cambridge all the way to the semi-final. If it had, I’m prepared to bet that even Eric Monkman, captain of the rival team that defeated us, or quiz master Jeremy Paxman may have struggled to find an answer.
But as a maths teacher now in a secondary school, it is a problem I am attempting to answer on a daily basis.
One of my 13-year-old pupils recently quipped: “Mr Seagull, you’re a cool teacher, but your subject is dead.” The UrbanDictionary.com suggests “dead” means something both defunct and uncool, citing pop musician “Britney Spears’ career” as one example. It is a national tragedy that it is socially acceptable, even a badge of honour, to say that you cannot do maths. As parents, you must never tell your kids that maths is not cool.
As a mathematician, I love my subject for its innate beauty. It can help describe the world through modelling and equations. However there are many students who find it easier to relate to maths once they see its real world applications.
I recently taught my students percentages and their eyes lit up when I asked: “Do you want to make sure that you never get ripped off in shops and that you understand how reductions work in Sports Direct?”
All too often, special offer signs will say “up to 60 per cent off”. Up to! Unless you understand percentages, you will not know whether the price on the label is 60 per cent off, or a much smaller amount.
I find I can appeal directly to their teenage materialism by making them think about the money in their pocket. Most teenagers revel in acquiring the trendiest smartphone or must-have fashion item. If we can engage with them at this level now, it will make them more confident when they are faced with future money decisions.
It will not be long before they leave my classroom and move on to university or the world of work. Here they will find that making a mistake will not result in a red “x” in their exercise book, but it could cost them dearly.
So I tell my students that not only are maths graduates among the highest paid employees, but those with a mastery of the subject can decipher the adult world: how to compare the best-value phone deals or holiday packages, or much bigger things.
I’ve collaborated with the Open University and MoneySavingExpert’s Martin Lewis to deliver a free online personal finance course for young people. The course covers everything from bank accounts to car loans to credit cards, providing a solid grounding in the basics of finance for young people — or anyone who wants to learn more and test their knowledge of money management.
Why is this so important? Research by the Open University has found that one in seven 18-year-olds are in debt, hence the increasing need to boost their financial competence. Young people may prioritise their social life above making financial sacrifices, but teenagers who understand numbers will be better placed to make sensible decisions.
And life has a habit of not working out how you might have thought. Before I moved into education, I was drawn to the bright lights of the City and its eye-watering graduate entry salaries. In 2007, I started out as a trader at Lehman Brothers. The date of Monday September 15 2008 still haunts me — it was the day the bank collapsed, and the financial crisis became an inescapable reality.
We were told that we no longer had jobs. My Lehman colleagues streamed out of our Canary Wharf offices with all of their belongings inside cardboard boxes. I called my 18-year-old brother John, who came from our family home in nearby East Ham with a granny-style shopping trolley to help me wheel home my possessions. He was clearly not scarred by the experience and is now a trader himself at Goldman Sachs.
After Lehman’s demise, I went to work at Nomura, the Japanese investment bank, before becoming an accountant at PwC. So my students often hear tales of how numbers were deployed on a day-to-day basis in Mr Seagull’s previous careers.
Another way of making maths relevant is music. “Two plus two is 4, minus one that’s three — quick maths!”. Teenagers will tell you these are the opening lines of the song Man’s Not Hot by comedian-turned-rapper Michael Dapaah (aka Big Shaq), which has become a viral sensation.
I find it revealing that students have difficulty recalling trigonometric identities or applying compound interest, yet can speedily recite the lyrics of Big Shaq. Clearly, students can learn things such as times tables, but they need it in a format that appeals to them. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll hear a Stormzy vs Seagull “Maths rap” powering up the charts. (In case you’ve been hiding under a dusty maths textbook for some time, Stormzy is the grime sensation who won BBC Music’s artist of 2017.)
If Stormzy is up for it, I am sure I could persuade Mr Monkman, my delightful Canadian pal and Wolfson College Cambridge captain, to join in. I have forgiven him for defeating us in University Challenge, and we have even co-written the imaginatively titled Monkman and Seagull Quiz Book.
When it comes to questions about money, many people don’t know where to find the answers. Alongside Rachel Riley, the numbers whizz from TV game show Countdown and her predecessor Carol Vorderman, I’m one of the ambassadors for the National Numeracy charity, which works to improve adult numeracy.
Nearly 50 per cent of working-age UK adults have poor numeracy skills, equivalent to what we would expect from an 11-year-old. This is most certainly not cool. Teenagers should avoid starting their adult lives with their hands tied behind their backs.
One of my idols is Stephen Fry. I was humbled to interview the national treasure for my Radio 4 programme about polymaths. Mr Fry said: “If I could have my time again, I would want to be better at numbers and master mathematics.” If a man with the stature of Mr Fry wants to do more maths, then so should we all.
Indeed, I am currently writing a book about the 10 numbers and equations that changed my life. I see the world through the prism of numbers, and think that we can all benefit from nurturing our relationship with maths. My life mission is to transform the British attitude towards maths. I want to do for maths what the chef Jamie Oliver did by changing the perception of healthy eating in schools. Let’s make maths cool again.
Bobby Seagull is a secondary school maths teacher, a doctorate student researching maths anxiety and phobia at Cambridge university, quiz enthusiast and a long-suffering West Ham fan. Twitter:@bobby_seagull