Celia Hoyles: The magic numbers
As 'maths tsar' Celia Hoyles tried to persuade us that her subject is useful and beautiful. The mission continues
Tuesday January 22, 2008
Like Bertrand Russell, for whom mathematics was "my chief source of happiness", Celia Hoyles has always adored a subject that terrifies and repels large sections of the population. She sees life, she says, through a numerical lens and instantly appreciates the mathematical patterns in things like snails' shells. "There's something wonderful about logical proof," she enthuses. "You can prove one thing and fit it into something else, it's like a jigsaw."
Wonder, beauty, love - these are not words most of us would use about maths, but Hoyles use them frequently, along with an occasional "fantastic!". It's not surprising that her second marriage is to a fellow maths education professor. They are both based at the London University Institute of Education - and "we talk maths all the time".
Hoyles is the country's leading mathematics educator. Now 61, she has devoted most of her life to finding new ways of getting children excited about the subject, raising teachers' morale and giving maths a higher public profile. She has just finished a two-year stint as the government's chief adviser on maths education (she's been dubbed the "maths tsar" by the press) and now, while retaining her chair at the Institute of Education, she has taken charge of the new National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Maths.
Female mathematicians were once rare and, though women now account for more than a third of university maths students, people still remember another of Russell's observations - "I like mathematics because it is not human" - and think the subject unfeminine. But a few minutes with Hoyles, who wears big rings, admiringly recalls "an incredibly glamorous" applied maths teacher from her schooldays, and was once seen by a colleague buying what he described as "exotic clothes" in John Lewis, will soon disabuse you of that.
There's no doubting her enthusiasm - and she needs it. The national aversion to the subject, she acknowledges, is deeply rooted. People will cheerfully admit to innumeracy, and even take pride in it, though they would never admit to illiteracy. You don't get that, she says, in Asia or eastern Europe or even, to the same extent, in France and Germany.
Hoyles's lifelong mission has been to make maths something that people talk comfortably about. There's a personal edge to this campaign. She talks about the loneliness of the pure mathematician, absorbed in a language other people don't understand. "It can be very isolating," she says. "If you're a mathematician, you have different sorts of conversations."
Need to communicate
Brought up in a middle-class family in suburban Essex, the youngest of three daughters, Hoyles gained a first-class maths degree at Manchester University. The obvious next step was to start research. But she didn't; it was too lonely a prospect. She needed to find a way of combining her love for the subject with her need to communicate.
It wasn't like it is now, she says, when "mathematicians have to communicate with everybody" because mathematical models underpin everything from the financial markets, through animation, to weather forecasting. In those days, there were fewer opportunities.
So for her, the answer was teaching - in London's East End. "It made me rethink my maths," she says. "You become automated and routine with things like fractions and calculus. When you're teaching, you've got to unpack all that and ask: why do I do it like this?" Later, she became a lecturer at the Polytechnic of North London, working on a course to convert teachers of other subjects into maths specialists. She moved to her chair at the Institute of Education in 1984.
And then she became, for a few years, a television star. Hard though it is to imagine, ITV aired a prime-time (7pm) programme in the 80s designed to turn maths into family fun. It was fronted by Johnny Ball, with Hoyles on board to provide tips as the studio audience and viewers at home tackled puzzles. It had, Hoyles says, 10 million viewers. People recognised her in the street - she even got an upgrade on a long-haul flight. "The idea - and I'm passionate about it - was to get parents involved in their children's maths. Parents read to their children, so why can't they do maths with them? We wanted to get people talking about maths in the home, and it worked."
As Hoyles points out, there's a disjunction between school maths and maths people use in their lives. People will carry out quite sophisticated mathematical operations at work - or in leisure pursuits such as darts, gambling and sudoku - but freeze if given pen and paper and told to do maths. One of Hoyles's research projects showed that nurses make accurate judgments about proportions when administering drugs without necessarily using the procedures taught at school.
It was her interest in bridging the gap between teachers and practitioners that persuaded the then education secretary, Charles Clarke, himself a maths graduate, to appoint her to the maths tsardom. As an academic colleague put it: "Maths educators are prone to psychobabble, but Celia has stayed in the real world, finding out what people actually do in industry."
Her appointment followed an inquiry into post-14 maths education by Adrian Smith, principal of Queen Mary, University of London. When he started work, Smith asked to meet the person in charge of maths at the education department. There wasn't anybody. He later met 25 civil servants with some responsibilities for the subject including, Smith recalls, "one person with a maths degree and about 14 historians". The need to give the subject a clear voice in the department was the top recommendation in his report, and Hoyles was chosen.
What did she achieve? Smith and Clarke speak warmly of her efficiency and dynamism. But some maths educators argue she didn't make enough noise. "I spoke to a lot of ministers," says Hoyles. "I made the voice of maths heard in government circles. That was my job. I can't tell you how many talks I gave."
There were also grumbles that she didn't campaign for higher pay for maths teachers. Hoyles, though well aware of the astronomical salaries available to maths graduates in the financial world, is unrepentant. "Teachers of maths are already paid more because they get promoted very quickly if they're good. All teachers should be paid well. Just because you're a mathematician, you can't be paid as if you're working for Morgan Stanley."
She ticks off a list of things she "pushed forward". They include the centre she now heads, which offers professional development for maths teachers, and a growth in the number of assistants available to maths teachers. She is proud of the revival of A-level "further maths" , which was nearly extinct. Now, it can be taken by distance learning, even if you're the only student in the school who wants to do it.
But what of the university tutors who complain that the standard of students with A-level maths has fallen so badly they are compelled to hold remedial classes? "You've got a broader group seeing maths as part of their education," Hoyles says. "People might do A-level maths and go on to be historians. Fantastic! I don't think we can ever know if A-level maths has become easier or harder, only that it's different."
For GCSE, she supports the idea of a "functional maths" syllabus, now under trial, to teach basic numeracy for everyday life. Maths, she says, has always had a dual function in school: to produce the future mathematicians and engineers while providing the rest of us with a survival kit.
I suggest that perhaps some pupils shouldn't bother with, say, algebra. Hoyles looks at me as if I'm supporting child abuse. "X is a variable," she says, "and understanding the idea of a variable is crucial. Algebra is so powerful. People say: oh, you'll never need that bit of maths. And I say: sure, and you'll never need that bit of English or that bit of art. It's the way of thinking you need."
Which is a fair point. At heart, I think, Hoyles remains a missionary for maths rather than just for numeracy, determined that more people should enjoy, as she does, the beauty and the wonder. I doubt that mission will ever end.
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