On Barleycorns and Nuclear Fallout


It’s surprising what you remember from a talk (or a class, or any kind of learning experience).

I‘m writing this a few days after the 2017 Maths Scholars enjoyed a 45-minute session with Anne Fieldhouse from Sum Solutions, looking at how maths puzzles can be used in school.

Genuinely, the first two things that come to my mind from the discussions are “English shoe sizes are still measured in units of barleycorns”, and “Enrico Fermi calculated the fallout pattern of a nuclear test by experimenting with a wastebasket full of scrunched up paper!”

So – now I just need to wait for those questions to come up in a pub quiz! Of course, I’m pleased to say that I got more out of the talk than some agricultural and WW2 trivia…

Anne brought us a wealth of teaching and mentoring experience, and her own love of mathematics was plain to see. As maths scholars and trainee teachers, we have so much to learn about how to pass on our interest in maths, and Anne was well placed to teach us.

This was the last of the 3 sessions at our Maths Scholars kick-off conference at Aston University in September. It didn’t promise the “wow” factor of the other two, but it felt more accessible in terms of what we can deliver in class on a regular basis.

As well shoes and H-bombs, what did we learn about? I’d say three things:

Get personal!  Anne is skilled at making maths examples personal to herself, and the clear message is that this approach could work for us as well. In her first example, she used a 3x3 grid of random-looking numbers (all somehow related to her own life). From this simple starting point, Anne kept us engaged for 25 minutes, and made dozens of mathematical points along the way (as well as revealing the origins of English shoe-sizing!)

Be adaptable: It’s important to always be flexible to the classroom situation, but Anne especially challenged us to keep on adapting simple, successful resources. That way they can be used to differentiate, to challenge and to tackle misconceptions. Anne illustrated the principle clearly with a simple “Odd One Out” model, which is endlessly adaptable

Be prepared to go deep. All the examples we looked at demonstrated the power of sticking with a problem, to tease out all the mathematical goodies that it can reveal. As maths scholars, we hopefully have the capacity to find and use those hidden depths in a situation

Finally, I learned that “fun facts” (barleycorns and nuclear weapons) can stay with you. Is that a good thing? I suppose “Yes”, if it’s the hook to recall the other parts of the “lesson”. There again, perhaps “No” if that’s all that’s remembered!

As beginning teachers, we’ll need to find out what works for us in practice, but it’s fantastic to have this opportunity to learn from the experience in the Maths Scholars network.

Good luck to us all!

By Howard Smith, 2017 Maths Scholar