Our regular feature highlighting an article or research paper that will, we hope, have a helpful bearing on your teaching of mathematics
You may feel sated by the Christmas television (all those repeats … just like the cold cuts that seemed to feature in every ‘twixmas meal …) but Heather Mendick’s article A Mathematician Goes to The Movies persuaded us back in front of the DVD player. In the article, Heather, who is a member of the Educational Research Department, at Lancaster University focuses on four films that have a mathematician as the central character:
She argues that “the films create gendered pictures of what being a mathematician and doing mathematics mean, and that these pictures have powerful impacts on the ways in which learners construct their relationship with the subject.” She concludes that “these stories of mathematicians work to maintain rationality as masculine, and being good at maths as a position that few men and even fewer women can occupy comfortably … they support a key feature of the “nerd” stereotype”.
Robert Wilne, the NCETM’s Director for Secondary, is a keen cinephile: he tweets in a personal capacity @FilmCakeMath. He counters to Heather’s assessment that “the first three films are about mental illness, not mathematics: the characters happen to be mathematicians, their profession is incidental to the drama that arises from their malfunctioning brain chemistry. The negative, frightening “nutter” stereotype they perpetrate is far more reprehensible, and dangerous, than any “nerd” stereotype. Enigma is just a Buchanesque tale of derring-do: it’s no more a film about mathematics and mathematicians than North By Northwest is about aerial agricultural pest controllers and their magnificent flying machines. These films may well have an impact on how people imagine mathematicians to be, but the impact is not intentional, and it would be unfair to blame the writers and directors. In contrast, it will be very interesting to see how mathematicians are portrayed, and perhaps stereotyped, in the forthcoming deliberately-Maths-Olympiad-set (honestly!) X and Y. Will ASD + genius + hard sums + first love = Xcellent, or Y the XXXX did I pay £10 to see this?”
Heather’s paper is a good stimulus for discussion with your pupils, so that they have a deeper understanding of how portrayals of mathematics in the media could be discouraging them or their peers from further study. What can schools and teachers do to present a more positive mathematical image to our pupils? Let us know what you’re trying in your department?