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Celebrities ‘doing maths’ always makes me pay close attention. There’s almost always – and you can count down until the sure-fire moment this happens – a panic, an admission, and an anxious freeze where they realise their secret’s out, all too often followed by a frantic scraping back of the moment into comedy, to try and wrestle back control. What are they so afraid of?
‘I realise it’s early to say, but are we the stupidest ones yet?’ asks James Acaster on Series 7 Episode 1 of Taskmaster, the UKTV hit show where comedians and quasi-comedians compete against one another in ridiculously brilliant ‘tasks’ with delightfully idiosyncratic scoring by host Greg Davies. Acaster says this in dismay as he watches a VT of himself and four other celebrities completing a (vaguely) maths-based task, one which cleverly incorporates geometrical reasoning with a serious propensity for messiness. That’s my kind of task.
Measure the circumference of this caravan in baked beans reads the task, ambiguously. How might we respond to this as mathematicians, or those comfortable and confident in (informal) measurement? We all start life interested in the size of things. Small children compare objects, shares and heights (witness their delight as they grow steadily); hands and fingers and feet are lovely convenient sizes for using in this way, otherwise known as pacing off. But the contestants, constrained by the all-too-short time given and the ludicrous nature of the task, begin to panic.
Phil Wang, with a degree in engineering, rubs at his head frantically. Inexplicably, he begins to pour a can of baked beans around the caravan. ‘There’s no way on earth this will reach!’ he says.
Acaster himself takes single beans and begins to adhere them in a sad wet little row to the side of the caravan.
Kerry Godliman starts by using her handspan and measuring a length of beans along it, then estimating around the caravan in her hands. Smart. She gets to ‘15 times 50’. Then comes the panic. ‘I’m not very good at maths,’ she says, repeatedly. The audience laughs. ‘7050! 750! No – 7500! 750!’ More laughs. Her face contorts in thought.
‘You sounded like a malfunctioning cyborg,’ says host Greg.
Jessica Knappett takes a single bean and painstakingly measures one side of the caravan, then another. She doubles her totals in fine style, writing on the window in bean juice in the sort of flourish I very much appreciate.
Rhod Gilbert asks for a tape measure and a calculator, and makes short work of measuring around the caravan, converting from inches to centimetres, and converting into beans. ‘1275,’ he pronounces, confidently. He even goes so far as to double that in case they use width not length of bean. I’m cheering at the TV. But there is a twist.
Here is maths in the media, in the spotlight, in the public eye – about as high profile as you can get. How is it portrayed? As a tripwire. A trap. An exercise in humiliation.
Admittedly, that’s what this show is all about – that glorious yet dangerously fine line between genius and idiocy. And that’s why I was so sad when the final dénouement happened – Rhod’s estimate, so competently carried out and so confidently delivered, was far too high. Why? He had only used one bean length for measurement, and it turned out to be one far smaller than average. While some of the others may have been outwardly floundering, they recognised something fundamental about this task – multiple beans give a more representative sample and, while not explicitly finding a ‘mean bean’, they were using that concept fairly successfully.
Who did best? Who behaved the most mathematically? How can we measure?
Fundamentally, what does it mean to ‘do’ mathematics?
And more importantly, how can we preserve the instinct to get messy, to experiment and to pace off and to get our sums wrong sometimes without worrying about that most chilling of all the spectres, the Fear of Looking Stupid?
In the end, this task was scored by simple proximity to the correct answer – around 900 beans. Rhod came third.
Who calculated that answer and how did they check? How many beans did they measure to get a mean bean? How did they define the circumference of the caravan? Should we – in a TV show where the process is documented, is fully recorded, is the thing we are entertained by – score only on product, or can we understand some sort of concept of mathematical ‘style’ points?
These, to me, are not trivial questions (and neither is the show a trivial show); there are deep and important implications for mathematical assessment and classroom practice, for our understanding of numeracy and statistical literacy and geometrical reasoning and – most excitingly – for beginning to understand what happens when domains like this collide, as they do in the ‘real world’ beyond the classroom.