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Ben Sparks is a mathematician / musician / teacher. He works part-time as a speaker, tutor and co-ordinator with the Advanced Maths Support Programme (AMSP, previously the FMSP) based at the University of Bath, and part-time as a freelance maths enrichment speaker around the UK and the rest of the world – including the Maths Inspiration project.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
I remember doing maths at primary school, and not realising (yet) that it was special for me. I also remember a time in secondary school when I was rounding numbers and I got it very wrong – I was trying to round to a particular number of significant figures, and I thought you ‘cascaded’ the digits upwards. I remember knowing that I was probably doing it wrong and feeling confused and my teacher called me a wally. I remember the feeling very vividly of a brick wall being hit in my mind and not understanding why.
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
Oh, I really think being ‘into’ maths has a lot more public acceptance now – YouTube has got a lot to answer for there. It seems to be much cooler than it was to be a geek, although I don't really like that you have to be a geek to like maths. I'd rather maths was just celebrated for what it is – geek/cool labels might come and go, but maths will always be awesome to me!
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
One of my first years teaching maths, I set a homework; a simple arithmetic task. I collected it in and noticed all of them had got the first one wrong, mostly in the same way, so I thought they were all stupid, or had copied one another. I decided to act on this by becoming super patronising and sarcastic... and then I got to the end of this ill-advised spiel and asked: ‘So why did you all get this wrong?’
Then finally, a voice from the back of the room: ‘Sir – I’m not sure – but I think it might have been the example you did on the board that we all copied down.’ I was pretty embarrassed to say the least, but it taught me a good lesson about humility.
4. Do you practice mathematics differently in company?
Good question! I definitely don't think very well in my head – I ‘think’ much better on paper. On my own I tend to scribble stuff down, but at a conference or similar I might have to talk it out in the absence of those tools. This means that I say obvious stuff all the time – I basically use other people as my paper. I also don't think I process ideas very well on my own; I find it much easier to talk about it with others. Sometimes this might be mistaken for being confident or assertive but I’m usually hoping other people might challenge or question my ideas rather than accept them – mathematicians are usually quite good at this!
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
I could say a lot about this: the answer to ‘born or made’ generally has to be a mixture, but usually much more ‘made’ happens than people get credit for. Clearly some people have more aptitude in maths – but is it ever helpful to point that out? Everyone can do better; everyone can learn to be clearer about maths. That said, the elusive quality ‘charisma’ is hard to teach, but that’s true of any performance activity.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
The answer is the same if you replace mathematician with human – mathematicians are not a different species! I can’t give you a general answer that’s true for everybody, but for me, it’s the social interaction. Maths for me is not a solo thing. It’s very much like when I was in an a capella group at university: both involved collaboration with others in order to make cool, beautiful and creative things.
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
An infinite number of mathematicians walk into the pub. The first one orders a beer, which the bartender pulls from the pump and hands to her. The second one orders half a beer; the bartender obliges. The third one orders a fourth of a beer. The bartender gives her a look, but pours it for her. The fourth one opens their mouth, but the bartender stops them, pours two beers and says, ‘Know your limits’.
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