Saturday 7 February 2015

You Know You're a Maths Teacher When...

You never give a direct answer to a question, but instead reply with another question, so the asker can figure it out for themselves. I have a lot of trouble with this one to be honest. My husband has complained on several occasions. For example, the other day he asked me where the bin bags are. Even though I knew where they were and could have just told him, I automatically responded with, "Well, when did we buy them?" He didn't really appreciate that I was giving him the opportunity to work out the answer for himself.

You find a protractor in your wallet (this happened to a colleague of mine a couple of weeks ago).

You feel like scrawling across Google Calculator "You must show your working out!"

You sit in whole-staff meetings and when the presenter mentions the word "average" you immediately turn to your colleague and snidely point out "They didn't say which average, so that statement is meaningless".

All of your shopping lists, to do lists, Christmas card lists, etc are written on squared paper. In green pen.

You can touch-type on a Casio calculator.

You carry a mini screwdriver in your handbag for emergency compass-tightening. (Please tell me I'm not the only one?)

You start to type "body" in a text message and "BODMAS" comes up as a spelling suggestion.(Seriously, who was I texting about BODMAS?)

Can you think of any more?

Emma x x x

What Does the O Stand for in BODMAS?

I recently sat down to plan a lesson for year 7 students about the order of mathematical operations. Here in the UK, I believe this is most commonly known as"BODMAS". The B stands for brackets, D for division, M for multiplication, A for addition and S for subtraction.

But what does the O stand for?

I've heard several different answers to the above question, none of them satisfactory. One of my colleagues told me he taught it as "Orders". This random website I found agrees. But what the heck are orders? According to the aforementioned random website, they're "numbers involving powers or square roots". I have never heard this definition before, and after consulting the oracle (Wikipedia) I found no mention of indices or powers on the page for Order (mathematics). So why on earth would we teach students the word orders when we never call them that in lessons? We in the UK usually refer to these as "indices" although I believe the Americans prefer "exponents" (but I'll get to them later).

Another colleague told me he teaches that the O stands for "of" as in "powers of", and I'm ashamed to admit this was what I was taught in school. I think this one is faintly ridiculous. Firstly, O cannot stand for "Powers of" because "Powers of" clearly begins with a P not an O. Kids may be getting dumber every generation, but I have a feeling they will notice this. Also, why does the word "powers" even need an "of"? Can we not just call them powers? It reminds me a bit of learning French when we were always taught to write the following preposition after certain words like "decider de" or "je pense que" to help you form sentences. This was actually excellent advice for learning French, but this does not dilute my point.

A third colleague (it is amazing how many of them are willing to contribute to my inane Monday-morning conversations) said that he teaches that the O stands for "Other" as in, any other operations not mentioned. This is quite nice actually, because it includes not just powers and roots but also sines, logs, factorials, etc. Very handy.

I then went into my year 7 lesson and asked them what they thought the O stood for. Interestingly, the most common response was one I had not heard yet: "operations". This is perhaps the one that annoys me the most. BODMAS is the tool we use to remember in which order we should do operations. If O stands for "operations", then we are basically saying, do the bit in the brackets first, then do the operations. Oh wait, what order do I do the operations in? Use BODMAS. So I do the brackets and then the operations. But what order do I do those operations in? etc etc. Thank you Primary school teachers. Thanks a bunch. You have just created an infinite loop in my head. You have given my eleven year-old students an acronym to learn that is actually a recursive formula. After infinite iterations they will still not have found the value of 3 + 2 x 5.

So I bet you're dying to know what I taught them in the end, right? Well I told them about the conversations I'd had in the maths office. I also told them about the American version: PEMDAS. Seriously. That's what they call it. The MDAS is obvious enough. The P is for "parentheses" which my students had never heard of but which is quite useful to know I suppose, and the E is for "exponents" as I mentioned above. My year 7s were not happy that our friends across the Atlantic do their multiplication before their Division though. "Surely they'll get different answers from us and then spaceships won't work!!" they cried. (I must have told them about the metric/imperial satellite mix up in a previous lesson). This led to a nice discussion about how those two operations are interchangeable and you would still get the same answer (or would you? I have just thought of a topic for a future post).

Anyway, in the end, I taught them the O stands for Indices. That's right, I'm on Team BIDMAS. All you BIDMAS haters out there can hate hate hate but if we refer to powers as "indices" the rest of the time why not in this? And if you have a problem with me not including trig functions or logarithms or whatever in my acronym well you shouldn't because by the time you're learning that sort of stuff you shouldn't need a mnemonic to help you remember which order to do stuff in anyway!

Over to you: what did you learn at school, and, if you're a teacher, what do you teach now?

Emma x x x