Olympic Legacy

One of the justifications for the Olympic budget is the pious hope that people will be inspired to participate in sport more than hitherto.  No previous Olympic games achieved this, and it’s easy to see why.  The Olympics offer a model of sporting activity that is unavailable to most and unattractive to almost everybody.  Running 150 miles each week is not an option or an aspiration for all but a handful of talents.  If the powers that be really want to raise levels of participation, they should offer the models suited to the mass of the population, with facilities to match (proper cycle lanes, school sports fields, local swimming pools,etc.).  There are rewards that come from participating in sport at a very low level, but you’d never know it from watching the Olympics.

This matters to the DMJ because the same point applies to mental activity.  Tales of geniuses making astounding breakthroughs will not encourage kids into mathematics any more than Olympic gold will inspire sedentary Britons to take moderate exercise.  What we need are images of middling intellects getting something valuable out of mathematics.  This is especially important because in our assessment-driven system, children know from early on where they stand in the intellectual league tables.  The great majority know themselves to be middling intellects long before they make decisions about what to study.  We need stories about mathematics and illustrations of its value that speak to children thus informed.



2 thoughts on “Olympic Legacy

  1. It is problematic for the sport-maths comparison that, in some sense, the subject of mathematics consists of a sequence of breakthroughs. If you’re trying to solve polynomial equations, the breakthroughs of the past are portions of information which are critically relevant to the task. By contrast, if you’re trying to run more competently, learning about the running activities of Mo Farah or Haile Gebrselassie is unlikely to be so incredibly helpful.

    One could choose instead to compare with the teaching of English. It is not common to argue that there is next to no point promoting Joyce and Dickens to students, because very few of them will end up even trying to write such a work, and reading classics may not even inspire them to try; and that it is more important to have them read compendia of safety notices, and letters advising of overdue library loans. Their stance may well be valid, and yet everyday English is defined less by the breakthroughs of yesteryear than everyday mathematics is.

    I guess I could agree that the images of breakthroughs themselves — disembodied from the ideas contained within — are of no inspirational value. But the analogy doesn’t help with the question of whether, when one teaches the content, one should teach it as a tale of groundbreaking work.

    Luckily, my feeling is that not many disembodied images of astounding breakthroughs in mathematics are highly visible to the public, particularly now the hubbub caused by the work of Wiles and Taylor has died down a bit.


  2. The question is: what is the activity that you’re trying to coax people into? If the answer is ‘making Wiles-type breakthroughs’, then almost everybody would be rational to resist the coaxing. I’ve seen it said that the point of a degree in English literature is to show you which books to read once you’re old enough to appreciate them. As a literature teacher, you’re hoping to inculcate the habit of reading the good stuff for pleasure (you may have some other educational goals too, but set them aside for the moment). This is a reasonable aim, being within the reach of middling intellects. Is there a corresponding activity for mathematics?

    I was motivated to think on this by the sound of Sir Harry Kroto, trying to get kids interested in chemistry by pointing out that some of the biggest global problems (food, fuel, climate) will need breakthroughs in chemistry to solve them. Won’t it be satisfying to make those breakthroughs? Yes, I can hear averagekid thinking, for the very clever people who find the solutions, but it won’t be me.


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