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26 April, 2004

Eureka

I'm bad at maths.  Present me with a mathematical problem, and I tend to freeze; I just don't know where to start.  I have enough trouble changing mental gear from thought to speech, never mind from words and images to numbers.

This morning I bought two new keys for my front door.  The second was half price, and the total cost was £5.  So how much was the first?  Previously I'd have presumed there's an acquired technique of solving the problem, which I haven't acquired, so I'd give up before even starting.  Yet I suddenly realised that the total is one whole plus one half, so £5 is 3/2 of the unit price: divide by three, multiply by two, £3.33.  Simple!

At school, there were ~180 pupils in my year group, divided into classes of manageable size (~30) according to ability. I was in the 'top set' for all (academic) subjects except Maths. I don't remember how that happened, but once it had, the eventual outcome of my education was predetermined. Whilst the top Maths class grasped concepts fairly quickly, the teacher was obliged to adopt a slower pace with my group, and teaching the bottom set was an exercise in crowd control. Consequently, only the top set studied the full curriculum. After five years of compulsory secondary education, my knowledge of quadratic equations is limited to the name alone.
A second implication was that the different groups sat different final exams: in the middle set, the maximum achievable grade was a 'C'. That restriction wasn't known at the outset. Once my parents and I realised, there was an effort to transfer me, but it was risky. I had a reasonable expectation of managing the 'C', but the higher paper tested topics I simply hadn't been taught, so there was a real risk of failing outright. Since a 'C' was adequate for admission to the next stage of education ('A' levels) and I had no wish to pursue mathematically-intense subjects, I took the safe alternative. I managed it (easily, as it happens), but have been left with limited confidence.

However, I'm beginning to learn that basic logic and lateral thinking have a greater role than I'd previously thought, so maybe I do have a chance. To calculate something like the volume of a sphere (volume of a cone: that's something else I was never taught), one simply must know the formula, so I'm right to give up, but for arithmetic situations like the price of keys, there is hope.

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