Puzzles, quizzes, and confidence to find an answer

Bobby Seagull is a maths teacher – he’s also one of our scholar alumni, a Doctorate (EdD) candidate, a polymath, has been on University Challenge and has found time to write a book and have his own radio show.  The Maths Scholars scheme was excited to catch up with Bobby as we have been in contact through our alumni events and social media throughout his teaching career.

We asked Bobby why he’s so passionate about changing the perception of maths.

“Maths has had a bad press in the UK, it’s almost a badge of honour to say that you “can’t do maths” and it’s my long term life goal to change that attitude and perception.  Essentially, in the next 50 years I want to change the perception of maths in the same way that Jamie Oliver increased the awareness for the need of healthy school meals.”

Clearly achieving this won’t be easy, but Bobby has a plan for how he’s going to change the perception of maths.  On a personal level, he has started doctoral research, which we were keen to hear about.  “I’m researching at Cambridge University, and have a deep interest in why people become anxious around maths.  I know anxiety and even phobia is something you feel on a personal level so I’m also keen to extend my research into a more social context, potentially looking at whether or not the perception of maths changes across different nations.  As I’ve only just started my research, I’m still defining my thesis hypothesis but I want the output to be directly applicable to maths education – to permeate popular culture and make a difference to how people perceive mathematics."
"Interestingly, when I interviewed Stephen Fry for my BBC Radio Four show, he said that if he could have his time again, he would really want to be better at numbers and master maths. He said he appreciated the beauty of the subject and remembered vividly the day he conquered simultaneous equations and called it an 'extraordinary revelation' when he saw the glory of the 'equal sign'."
“Also I’m a big fan of the grime/hip hop artist Michael Owuo – although most of you know him as the chart-topping Stormzy! He did really well at school, getting 6A*s, 3As and 5Bs in his GCSEs. I know that a lot of my students enjoy his music, so one of my dreams is to collaborate with Stormzy to create a Maths rap and this will make maths very cool in their eyes. You heard it here first – the Maths rap by Stormzy featuring Seagull!”

Whilst your research is on-going, what are you doing to help change the perception of maths?

“One area I am really passionate about to removing the belief that to be “good at maths” means you are “good at arithmetic.” Mathematics covers so much more than arithmetic.  Neither are people naturally good at mathematics.  For many people, becoming good at maths is just the same as becoming good at any other subject – it takes time and practice.  Everyone can develop their maths skills and their maths mind-set.”
“It’s also really important that people start to see just how maths is an integral part of everyday life and throughout history.  I’ve just co-authored a general knowledge quiz book with Eric Monkman, which has questions covering areas from history, geography to obviously maths and the sciences.   There are even questions aimed pupils in Key Stage 2 (testing whether they’ve been listening in maths lessons!).  It’s written so that you can dip in and out of the book and it’s written to be enjoyable and fun. If you ever listen to BBC Radio Four around 6.50am, you'll often hear my brain teasers/puzzlers for their Puzzle of the Day as well - I test them on my school students before millions hear it on national radio!”
“I’m also currently writing a new book on how maths can help people in their daily lives – whether they’re going to the gym, cooking, planning a holiday or even dating, how maths can be of benefit – I’ll need to find the time to fit this in with my busy schedule however!”
“I’m also engaged with the National Numeracy Campaign which helps adults increase their level of numeracy.  There are over 17 million adults in England (half the working age population), who have the numeracy capability that we’d expect from an 11 year old and if we can change that, we can make a huge difference to so many aspects of their life, whether that be at work or at home for example in managing the household budget. I’m really excited about working with them to be able to raise the profile of maths and numeracy.”
 “The second institute I’m involved in is the Training Partnership where I’m presenting at Maths in Action days on the 7th and 30th November along with Simon Singh, David Spiegelhalter, Mark Lewney and Sara-Jane Dunn.  The days are a fantastic way to help pupils really start to develop a “can do” mind set for maths and also see the breadth of areas in which maths is used”

As a teacher, what mathematicians do you think pupils should know about for them to see the breadth and applicability of maths?

“That’s a good question!”  Firstly, I would say they should know about Maryam Mirzakhani.  It’s important for the pupils to see that mathematicians are human beings – they can be male or female, get married, have families. Some are exceptional – not all win the Fields medal, but Maryam did.  I share Maryam’s view that you can work on your maths ability, as she herself said “you have to spend some energy and effort to see the beauty of math” It’s also important pupils know about Euclid – the mathematics developed over 2,300 years ago is still applicable today.  Most pupils learn circle theorems, but how many know how developed them and how long ago?  As teacher, I always try to bring my passion for the subject into the classroom and make each lesson engaging.  I try to be a strict teacher, my pupils know that but I do try show each pupil the beauty of mathematics.  That means the third mathematician pupils should know can be seen in Raphael’s “School of Athens”, there are many mathematicians in the picture, but Pythagoras can be seen working in a book.  It just reinforces that everyone has to work to get better at math.” We couldn’t agree more.

(Photo credit: Lloyd Mann from the University of Cambridge).