"I haven't done coordinate geometry in about 25 years,” sighs Dara O Briain in a tone that suggests he would be quite happy not to revisit the subject for another 25. “I should be able to do this in my head.”
Ensconced in a central London hotel, O Briain is re-enacting a summer rite of passage by sitting a one-hour maths GCSE paper. To make it more taxing for the 41-year-old comedian, who also happens to be a maths and theoretical physics graduate of University College, Dublin, we’ve asked him to do it in ten minutes (see how he fared below ). Back this week with another series of his maths show, School of Hard Sums, O Briain has agreed in order to understand better the current educational debate about maths and how it’s taught and examined in this country.
His reaction, after reluctantly putting down his pen, is one of mild bewilderment. “Are you sure that’s not an ordinary-level paper and then there’s another harder one?” he asks. “Surely? What do you do if you’re really bright?”
No mistake, he is reassured. It is a GCSE higher- level paper from June 2011 and while there is another paper which requires a calculator, it’s of a similar standard. Moreover this paper is set by OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations), an examining board considered by many to be the most rigorous in the subject. While successive governments assert the independence of exam boards, many education experts see them as subject to government and commercial pressure to deliver constant improvement in pass rates.
He pauses, clearly wary of being seen as some kind of kneejerk reactionary, or even worse as another critic lining up to belittle the young.
“I don’t believe that my generation is the point at which evolution peaked,” he observes wryly. “That makes no sense to me. But I’d find that paper very boring. I’d be racing to finish it and get out of the door.”
One fact cited by those who argue that GCSE maths has become easier is that pupils no longer need to do any calculus. Perhaps not unrelated, a recent University of London survey suggested that the strongest UK maths students, while roughly on an equal footing with their counterparts in the Far East at age ten, had by 16 fallen two years behind them.
“That’s quite shocking if it’s true,” he says. “It reminds me of this joke on [US satirical show] Saturday Night Live. They said, ‘This week President Obama held the largest single class, where they linked several hundred American schools and they all sang a song, I Wanna Play, and it was an amazing, beautiful event. Meanwhile, in China, a billion children did maths.’”
Clearly, O Briain feels no bright 16-year-old would be challenged by the paper he’s just sat. “There should be an additional, challenging paper,” he reasons. “I don’t mind there being a general paper to help you get some idea of what kids can do. But that’s like the first ten questions that you can just bang off before you get to the meaty stuff. There’s nothing unexpected or unusual there. And that’s why they’re not interesting. That’s the most telling criticism of it all – they’re not very interesting questions.”
Why maths should matter is a subject close to his heart. With the verbal dexterity honed by stand-up and, at home in Ireland, as a national debating champion in both English and Irish, he has little difficulty in constructing a case.
“Maths is the language in which the universe is written,” he begins. “It’s innate to the human brain and is a spectacular thing that we’ve discovered/invented. Also it permeates our lives. If you have to discuss something in terms of its utility, we’re moving increasingly to being a technological society and therefore you need to be conversant with it. But in all honesty, I am over discussing things in terms of their utility, as if education is just training for jobs – it isn’t.
“I encounter the same argument in teaching obscure languages: it fires neurons in different ways, helps you with problems. The example I quote is if people really understood probability, they’d save a lot of money on lottery tickets.”
Although sent down the path of maths and physics by an inspirational science teacher at 14, O Briain believes he was wise not to pursue those subjects beyond degree level. He refers to a small mistake he made in his calculations during an episode of the show.
“In an exam, I would have got 99 per cent,” he explains, “but in real life you don’t get 99 per cent if you get the Large Hadron Collider almost all the way round, but it just goes a bit wrong at the end. You get zero. It illustrates one of the reasons why I was right not to continue with science – I was about panache, not about the rigour.”
O Briain derides the idea that maths needs to be sold to children (he cites an episode of The Simpsons that features a “Mathemagician”), and even worse that it should be made to appear cool. He’s adamant that School of Hard Sums goes out of its way not to be cool and, if he had his way, it wouldn’t be funny, either.
“In making it, we’re fighting the forces of people who want to make it popular,” he argues of the show, which manages to attract a healthy 400,000 viewers on Dave. “If it was left to us, it would be really, really nerdy. There should be stuff in there that’s quite taxing to the brain and it’s there for people who like that sort of thing.”
Make it difficult, make it interesting. Pretty much the same advice he’d give to those responsible for teaching maths in this country.
So how did Dara do?
Dara races through the first two questions, but drops a couple of marks on a simple calculation of the price of pizza by failing to read the question thoroughly. He picks up full marks with Question 3, which asks students to trace a graph detailing olympic men’s triple jump records and aces the next question on trigonometry.
He misses out on a mark in an algebra question simply by failing to write the answer down after doing all the previous workings. No matter, only halfway through and he’s already secured enough marks for a C. all the more impressive because he still does his maths in gaelic, mumbling the occasional “comhionann le” rather than “equals”.
Question 8 on scatter graphs proves his only major hiccup. His answer — “I don’t know what a scatter graph is” — might be honest, but earns him no marks. a neat solution of a simultaneous equation gets him back on track, however, and he follows this up with some rapid-fire calculations that prove samira’s eyes are indeed 96 feet above sea level.
A slip on the final page sees him simplify (√5)4 as 625 rather than 25 (ie 625’s square root), but no matter: he finishes with a tally of 47 out of 60, comfortably above the raw mark of 43 required for the top mark of a*. and all in just ten minutes.
Dara O Briain: School of Hard Sums begins on Wednesday at 8:00pm on Dave