# Intersections: Mathematics and the professor of psychology

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- Intersections: Mathematics and the professor of psychology

## Intersections: Mathematics and the professor of psychology

Patrick Leman is Professor of Psychology and Dean of Education at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London. He is a developmental psychologist whose work explores social identities in school-aged children and how this affects children’s communication, peer collaboration and learning.

**How would you characterise your current work?**

My current role involves leading education for undergraduate and post graduate students at the IoPPN, so a significant part of my work involves academic administration and leadership. My role means I do not have much contact teaching, although I do supervise PhD and research students who use statistics in their studies. I still engage in research and, given that a lot of my work is experimental, use statistics to analyse and interpret research data. I am adding to my knowledge all the time: for instance, I recently co-authored a meta-analysis and this required learning new techniques to understand the data and findings.

**How do you feel about maths? **

I am by no means an expert mathematician. Although I studied maths at A level, and was always quite good at it, I do not think of myself as a natural mathematician. But, when I do use it in my work, I certainly do enjoy it. I have no doubt that a sound understanding of mathematics is essential for every person to function successfully in any job or to run a household effectively. I also particularly enjoyed pure mathematics as a school student. As a discipline it involves solving problems, applying rules, seeking patterns, and no small amount of creativity. It is also satisfying to solve problems and play with complex concepts. Maths is an essential skill that opens up minds to a whole set of other areas of study. In fact, my first degree was in psychology and philosophy and I particularly enjoyed those parts of philosophy that connected with my knowledge of mathematics.

**What is it about your work that is mathematical?**

My role and responsibilities involve dealing with numeracy in a range of different ways, from handling financial information and planning documents to modelling student numbers and teaching space. While this is not perhaps using the advanced mathematics I studied at A level, I confess that I enjoy spending time with a complex spreadsheet and have confidence in mathematics to challenge and understand when it is being used properly.

In my research, which increasingly I fit around my administrative role, a good understanding of mathematics and statistics is essential. Much of my work blends research methods so although I do use a qualitative approach at times, the majority of research I have conducted across my career involves experimentation. Modern psychological science research requires analysis of quantitative data and modelling and I feel there is always more to learn. For instance, recent initiatives in open science and issues around the reproducibility of findings have brought questions of statistical appropriateness to the fore in the field.

**How do you use maths, calculation or numeracy in your work? What tools do you use to help you?**

I think that maths enables me to do my work. For research purposes I use standard statistical programs to conduct analysis on data I have collected. I think that requires both competence in maths but also a degree of confidence that you can select the right test, understand the results, and communicate them effectively in papers. Similarly, for administrative work I can competently handle a spreadsheet, put together an algorithm or conduct analysis on data that I need to consider.

**Do you think maths is creative? If so, how?**

Absolutely! Maths is a fantastically creative discipline. I think this becomes more evident the more you study the subject and I found the correspondence between pure mathematics and philosophy particularly stimulating from a creative perspective while I was at university. With mathematics you are basically playing with numbers which are concepts. You can add these together in imaginative ways, you can use them to understand impossible and hypothetical situations, and you can explore and invent new ways of manipulating those concepts I think it is also important to remember that maths is an enabler of creativity, even when you are applying basic knowledge.

**Do you use or rely on any maths that you learnt in school?**

Yes, all the time. I think almost everybody does. The basic rules of maths feature in almost every aspect of life from a financial transaction at a shop to working out train times in my currently mammoth commute into London every day. And more recently, as a father of four, I find myself revisiting a lot of my old school lessons. Maths is taught rather differently today, and it's noticeable how much of the rehearsal of classroom learning is conducted in the form of online homework. I never had number lines at school - in fact, I am quite uneasy about how some number line concepts are taught, because sometimes (in my experience) teachers compel children to use it as the only strategy for solving problems, when other strategies are possible. I sometimes worry there is a danger that teachers who lack confidence in maths can communicate some of that anxiety to the pupils.

**How would you change the school curriculum, if you had the chance? Why?**

I am no expert on the mathematics curriculum or mathematics education, but I think it is such an essential aspect of learning that schools need to ensure it is delivered to a consistent an acceptable standard from the early years. Fundamentally, this is a matter of training and resources and I fear that providing appropriate mathematics teaching at schools has not been suitably prioritised by policy makers and those allocating resources in the past.

Lastly, there is a danger that maths is seen as a dry and perfunctory discipline. That's not the case, and schools could do more to integrate maths across the curriculum. I think it would also be extremely useful to explicitly teach students from an early age how maths can be applied to their lives. This could increase some of their life skills, such as financial and economic literacy, computing and information technology skills.

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