Friday, 26 September 2014

What's the point of surds?

I spent some time on Wednesday and Thursday at the North East Skills event with Think Physics.  We were there with 'spinning things' - gyroscopes, tops, plates, yo-yo's and a giant gyro-ride.  The event is aimed at young people between 14-25, though most are between 14-19. During the day schools brought groups of young people, and on Wednesday evening it was open to the general public (i.e. parents who brought their kids along).
Our stand at a quiet time.

Our aim was to show the visitors to the event the physics behind a simple toy, and then link that with the uses of that in their lives.  It seemed to work. There were a number of lovely 'woah' moments when we showed gyroscopes balancing on pen tips, or hanging horizontally from a piece of string.  We linked the toys to the GCSE curriculum (by analogy with Newton's first law*), and to life (artificial horizon on planes, direction systems in satellites etc).  

As well as that, we spent time talking with kids and parents about choices at A-level and beyond.  Because we weren't at the event trying to recruit for any particular organisation, we were able to give fairly independent advice.

At one point on Wednesday evening, when it was a little quieter, two girls (Yr 11) came to our stand, attracted by the plate spinning.  They spent some time working at getting the plates spinning, all the time chatting away like a comedy double act.  My colleague and I talked about school, lessons and what they wanted to do with their lives.  At one point during the discussion, they started ranting about their maths lessons.  They both said they enjoyed their maths, particularly algebra, but 'What's the point of surds?' they asked.  'Do you know what they are?', 'Have you ever needed to use them?'.  'We asked out teacher (who's lovely), but she couldn't tell us what they were for.  What is the point?  Why are we learning about them? When will we ever use them?'

I answered them: 'You might never use them' (Hah, knew it! they both said). 'But,' I continued, 'what you will use, is the skills that you've developed while learning about surds. The fact that you can identify important information to answer questions, that you can handle numbers, that you can work through problems to get to a solution. Those skills you'll use.

'When you go to apply for a job - those are the skills your boss will care about. Not that you can do surds, but that you've got the skills to do so.

'But the thing is. You can only develop those skills by learning stuff. By doing problems with surds.  That's the use of surds. Not that they are useful in themselves, but the skills you get from learning about them - that's why you learn about surds.'

The girls were convinced! 'Why didn't our teacher tell us that? That would have made sense.'

And the moral of the story?
I'm not sure, to be honest.  But perhaps we don't need to always justify our subjects in terms of usefulness in 'real life'.  Maybe relevance isn't always about where a child will make use of a particular topic. Perhaps we sometimes need to spell out the (thinking) skills that are being developed through the subject.

Annie, winding the string onto a gyroscope again.