22 September 2015

S4M-14311 Education

The Presiding Officer (Tricia Marwick): The next item of business is a debate on motion S4M-14311, in the name of Angela Constance, on building on Scotland’s educational success.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Feasgar math, Presiding Officer. I hope that one member of the front-bench team recognises that I said, “Good afternoon.” “Math” is a very important word in not only English but Gaelic, in which it means “good”. I am delighted that the cabinet secretary said right at the start of her speech that there needs to be greater public enthusiasm for maths. I see that my Gaelic pronunciation has clearly amused the Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages—entirely justifiably, I am sure.

Both the Conservative amendment and the Liberal Democrat amendment seek to delete all reference to maths from the Government’s motion. Mary Scanlon emphasised the importance of maths, but her amendment would delete all reference to it, replacing it with numeracy. Numeracy is important, but it is in the motion in the first place. Perhaps that tells us that Conservatives and Liberal Democrats simply do not count in this debate. However, they are far from being the worst of legislators when it comes to their ability to deal with maths.

I draw members’ attention to the Indiana pi bill—Indiana House Bill 246—of 1897, which sought to define in law a value for pi. It sought to define that value to be 3.2 rather than the 3.1416 et cetera—it is a transcendental number and cannot be defined in the real number system—that we all know it to be. That bill was passed on 6 February 1897. Fortunately, the Indiana Senate had another look at it after it went to the temperance committee. That might tell us something about the mood of the representatives who passed the bill in the first place. If we get things wrong here, there is always the comfort that others get it even more wrong elsewhere when it comes to maths.

The making maths count initiative is a very important one. As the cabinet secretary said in her press release on 3 September,

“Maths has a vital place at the heart of our curriculum”.

When I was a school student, our deputy head was Doc Inglis, a Lancastrian and a mathematician. His duty was to impart enthusiasm for maths among his pupils, so the first thing that he used to do with each class—my class was one of those with which he did this—was send it round the school to search for infinity. We looked in the dustbins, we took the blackboards down and we even went out to the sports field to contemplate infinity. The point is that, 55 years on, that is still imprinted in my memory. In the sixth year, he brought his tax return to the class and did that with us—either to tell us how little he got paid for trying to impart mathematical principles and practices to us, or to show us that there was some modest value in being able to add up numbers and minimise the tax that we pay.

Perhaps we most admired Doc Inglis as an inspirational teacher for his celebration of our headteacher’s appointment. He had gone for the job and not got it, and on the anniversary of the headteacher’s appointment, he would always come in wearing a black tie.

The motion talks about mathematics and numeracy. A great deal can be said on that subject. Much of what can be said to enthuse our schools students can be found in quite unlikely places. In particular, I commend “The Simpsons”, which is written by a team of writers of whom most are mathematicians. Almost every episode of “The Simpsons” has within it a mathematical conundrum.

For example, one episode made a sideways reference to Fermat’s last theorem just after it had been solved: four numbers expressed to the power of 12 on a blackboard in one of the scenes. Of course calculators show that Fermat’s theorem has been solved, but the reality—the trick—is that there is a digit about 17 points across to the right that shows that it has not actually been solved. It might be useful for us to contemplate encouraging teachers to introduce things such as watching “The Simpsons” as part of teaching mathematics in the classroom. If we make mathematics relevant to real life, we make mathematics a matter of enthusiasm for our kids.

Mathematics takes part in literature as well. Fiona McLeod has just spoken about literacy, and Dante’s “Inferno” refers to hell; one of the keepers of the gates of hell is Belphegor, who has his own special prime number. It was named after him and is 1000000000000066600000000000001—31 digits in total.

It is symmetric, and we can see other interesting things when we add up the digits.

There is also mathematics in religion. For example, Hindus are guided by the Vedic texts, which discuss what Hindus believe are the five types of infinity—the infinity of point, of line, of area, of volume and, of course, of time—and introduce the concepts of 1 and 0.

There are many places in our culture and in our lives where mathematics can be used to make maths relevant to people, which is the important thing.

Perhaps the great internet Mersenne prime study is the best of all. The largest Mersenne prime is, of course, 257,885,161-1. That is a really fascinating number to be getting on with.


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