Maths teaching, statistics and ethnography

TED talks have been a mainstay for over 30 years. It is a non-profit organisation whose raison d’etre has always been to spread ideas using the medium we all love: video.

If you are ever feeling fresh out of ideas or need your head expanding legally or your perspectives challenged then head straight for TED talks. It is capable of doing all three things within 15 minutes.

If you are a maths teacher, an aspiring maths teacher or someone perhaps who is considering applying to be a Maths Scholar then TED is fertile ground.

Why do the Maths Scholars scheme recommend TED?

It’s simple. The mind expanding talks increase creativity and not just incrementally. Ideas about statistics, mathematics, engineering, society and art frequently act like exercise classes for the grey matter. They are capable of totally transforming thinking and that’s never a bad thing.

Time to question Big Data and Algorithms

Recent videos that have been of particular interest for us have surrounded algorithms and big data. These two terms are often banded abound without much thought. There seems to be an inbuilt belief that algorithms tell us the truth and that there’s no point in interrogating them as ‘it’s maths’ and we wouldn’t therefore understand! As if…..that in itself is worthy of a blog but we’ll let that rest for the moment.

Are these ‘weapons of math destruction?’

The first TED talk we recommend is Cathy O’Neill’s ‘The Era of Blind Faith in Big Data must End.’ Here Cathy discusses the ubiquity of algorithms. They decide who is accepted for a loan, who makes it to a job interview and even who gets accepted for insurance. That’s just the start. You might think it’s all about numbers and must therefore be fair but Cathy, who is a mathematician and data scientist, thinks otherwise. She says the secretive world of algorithms can actually be termed "weapons of math destruction." In this talk she talks about the hidden agendas behind these supposedly objective formulas. She also makes a plea for why we should amend these algorithms and develop more effective and fairer ones. If you are looking for a point that will promote a mathematical, ethnographic and moral debate in class then sections of this talk will do just that.

We all need to promote the application of mathematics and questions around data and statistics.

These are always excellent starting and ending points for classroom debate. Another provocative talk is one about ‘thick data’. No it’s not stupid data but it’s the data that’s qualitative, often quite small but gathers the human, enriched story behind behaviours and numbers. Tricia Wang argues that human insights are actually missing from big data. She explores how Nokia’s inability to use thick data almost cost them their business and how Netflix embraced thick data and increased their business exponentially. Small sections from both these videos prompt fantastic discussions about what we believe in and how we have changed little from the Ancient Greeks who wanted to predict the future. However, she busts the myth around the Pythia, or Oracles who did not have super powers but were actually ‘high’ from a geological phenomenon. You’ll need to watch the video to find out more.

It’s TED talks like these that can add a touch of controversy to the maths classroom and may well help anyone thinking of joining maths educators to consider what contemporary conundrums need solving. Also it highlights some of the contemporary mathematical and sociological needs we have.  If you want to keep up with new ideas then make TED your first port of call; it’s where the outliers hang out.

If you have been inspired to consider teaching mathematics as a career there are various places where you can grab more information. Try Get Into Teaching and also the Maths Scholars website and also the Institute for Maths and its Applications. If you have any questions you can send us a message on Facebook or Twitter