Friday, September 2, 2011

How to solve the Maths problem

Statistics show that only 16% of pupils that took Maths in the leaving cert sat the higher level paper. Or to put it another way, a massive 89% only took the lower paper. Further controversy was stoked whem Minister RuairĂ­ Quinn admitted that he didn’t know how many maths teachers had taken mathematics as their main degree subject, though he did get an extra mark for showing his workings.
By not sitting the honours paper, pupils automatically excluded themselves from many third-level science, engineering and technology courses. Apparently they had the notion that they have also excluded themselves from three or four years of grappling with unintelligible formulae and algebraic equations. Kids, eh?
A proficiency in maths is essential for working in high-tech industries, which are performing strongest in job creation. They are also fairly essential if you want to work on the checkout in Tesco’s. Like the succession of ministers before him, RuairĂ­ Quinn admitted that much work must be done to increase the number of students taking higher-level maths and he has immediately set up a task force to oversee this, to be run by somebody else.
This has led to a lot of debate in educational circles and other two-dimensional mathematical shapes, as to how we can get more students to take Honours maths without dumbing down the paper. Apparently in the international league table, Ireland lies somewhere between Antarctica and Rockall in our mathematical proficiency, one possible explanation of the deep pile of doo-doo that we find ourselves in economically.
The Minister has announced that all those taking the higher maths paper in the leaving cert next year will gain an extra 25 bonus points. He feels that this will act as an incentive to students to consider taking the subject.
Of course, smart students will take seven different subjects and put their name down for higher level maths too. Then by simply turning up on the day of the exam and staying for five minutes, they will have another 25 points in the bag.
The incentive route certainly seems to be the way to go, though it is doubtful whether your average teenager will salivate at the thought of an extra 25 points. Promise them tickets for the Foo Fighters at Slane, or free driving lessons, or a new i-Phone and then maybe the Minister might be in business.
Another option is to make all the other subjects so difficult that higher level maths will seem a doddle by comparison. In history, you could set a question worth 25% of the marks asking students to describe the prevailing weather conditions of any one particular day in the past thousand years. Or in geography, ask them to list the inhabitants of any medium sized Chinese city. That will soon have them flicking back to x, y and zed and wondering if they are quite so difficult after all.
Inevitably the topic has touched on the way that maths is taught as a subject. In much the same way that lack of affinity for Irish is often attributed to the uninspiring way it was taught in school, so the spotlight has been turned on the hard-pressed maths teachers, who possibly have only a little more knowledge of what a logarithm is than their pupils.
Rather than simply standing at a blackboard, or whiteboard or greenboard or whatever they use these days, teachers are encouraged to be a little more creative in the way they impart the mysteries of heavy sums. Glove puppets are to be encouraged, with characters such as Tommy Tangent, Harry Hypotenuse and Annie Adjacent helping to explain the ludicrous art of trigonometry. Field trips to Paddy Powers will help to debunk the myths of probabilities and role playing should help to explain the science of sets and subsets, with extra marks being awarded to pupils who take on the challenging role of the brackets.
Although it is not an official ministerial directive, teachers with dull, boring voices have been encouraged to attend evening classes in rap and hip-hop in the hope that kids will start to see higher mathematics as something wicked, innit, rather than dull and irrelevant as the general consensus appears to be at the moment. Eminem has been approached to duet with Dizzy Rascal on a song about the complexities of the laws of indices and it is hoped that the resulting video will feature in classrooms from September, while Jedward’s new single has been provisionally titled Baby we love your integer coefficients.
Mr Quinn has encouraged young people who are disappointed with this year’s maths results to seriously consider re-sitting the exam next year. Sadly most young people, it would appear, would rather stick red hot pokers in their eyes. And who can blame them?

Hello Dragons

I am not generally a man to bear a grudge, or even to grudge a bear, and so this year, I magnanimously decided to accede to my wife’s suggestion that we holiday in France. Not that my approval was ever sought, you understand, but if it had been, I would have put the past firmly behind me and extended the hand of entente cordiale to our Gallic neighbours. Let bygones be bygones and all that.
And by and large, we had an excellent holiday. For once the sun behaved and I commendably resisted the urge to address shopkeepers and waiters as Thierry Henry avec le main, particularly as my wife would have given me one of those looks that can kill a man dead at thirty paces. Neither did I juggle one-handed with my bread roll at the table before flicking it over to an imaginary Gallas, though the temptation at times was almost as strong as the injustice perpetrated at the Stade de France on November 18th 2009, which I have put firmly to the back of my mind.
One thing I did notice, though, and it is something that has caught my attention anywhere outside the British Isles, is that they seem to have a pretty useless quality of electricity in continental Europe.
Oh, they beat us hands down with their bread and their coffee and their wine and their rivers are longer and their mountains are higher and the Eiffel Tower puts the Quinn Building firmly into the bungalow category, but in the electrical stakes, we are currently way ahead.
This is particularly evident when I shave on holidays. I have an electric shaver which gives me no problems at home but when abroad, it behaves like my lawnmower ploughing into a particularly thick clump of dandelions. Instead of humming like a bluebottle that’s just got five numbers up in the Euro millions, the buzz actually stops as it attempts to cope with two days of bristle. It simply can’t handle it and grinds to a standstill, like a car with a flat battery, at the same time yanking the hairs painfully out of my face instead of slicing neatly through the stems as the adverts show.
Now, my degree of expertise in the field of electricity extends as far as knowing that the green and yellow wire is earth. I get confused between the brown and the blue and have to consult the diagrams, tempted as I often am to simply take a chance. Let’s face it – I don’t even know what the stuff looks like.
But it occurs to me that they must be using less watts or volts or something in Europe, though obviously the ordinary man dans la rue doesn’t realise this. I mean, he can’t look at a light bulb in Perpignan and then nip over to look at a light bulb in Clonsilla and accurately compare the two. If he could, I suspect the Clonsilla bulb might blind him, so perhaps it’s just as well.
However, I am sure that he would be disgusted to find out that little old Ireland, up to its neck in debt and without a team in the 2010 World Cup finals, enjoys the benefits of Grade A electricity, while he has to make do with the Yellow Pack variety. Serious questions would be asked on the Pont d’Avignon as to why Frenchmen were ripping their faces to shreds every morning, while Irishmen and women can perform their boudoir in relative comfort.
I’m sure that it’s something to do with hydro-electric power. To my (admittedly unscientific) mind, it suggests that little droplets of water are getting into the wires and smudging them up, impairing the zinginess (technical term) of the electricity produced. In Ireland, of course, most of our lecky comes from good old-fashioned tried and trusted fossil fuels, with no chance of moisture surviving in the furnace.
My solution to the problem – and I only have the welfare of Monsieur Joe Savon at heart – would therefore be a two-fold one. Firstly, we taunt our neighbours mercilessly about their rubbish electricity (thereby alerting them to their inadequacies) and then we offer to sell them so top-notch, 24 carat electricity of our own.
Enda could invite over M. Sarkozy and spend the whole time on his Philishave, loudly proclaiming how effortlessly it slices through his stubble. Or Padraig Harrington could offer to give Miguel Angel Jimenez (sorry, couldn’t think of a French golfer) a bit of a trim the next time they’re standing on the seventh tee at Luttrellstown waiting for the pair ahead of them to finish up.
Then we go in for the hard sell and this is the bit I have to work out properly in my head before I approach the Dragons and look for them to invest several millions in the project. My problem is that I can’t figure out exactly how we’re going to deliver the goods.
The obvious solution would be to plug a very long extension lead into a socket in a house in Rosslare and then trail it under the sea to Le Havre, where it can hook up to the French network, which I believe is called Le ESB. Trouble is, I don’t know any deep sea divers who are also adept with a staple gun. You’d have to attach it to the sea floor somehow. You couldn’t just leave it floating in the water or it would keep tripping up trawlers or Russian submarines.
The alternative would be to fill up a lot of batteries with electricity and then ship them over. The danger with this is that, were the ship to sink, it might very well electrify the whole sea with disastrous consequences for marine life and anyone silly enough to go swimming in our waters.
I have also toyed with the notion of floating pylons, which I believe could work rather well. The concept of firing electricity into space and rebounding it off a satellite down to mainland Europe, however, is unlikely to reach the prototype stage due to severe funding issues.
Of course, another point of view could be that we should simply leave the French to struggle on with their inferior electricity, just as they left us to stay at home kicking our heels while they enjoyed the South African sun and the vuvuzelas and an early exit from the competition.
But I couldn’t possibly comment on that.