Bobby Seagull is a Cambridge University doctorate student researching maths anxiety & phobia and a school maths teacher. He is also an ambassador for the charity National Numeracy, a presenter for an Open University course on personal finance for young adults, a regular contributor to Radio Four's Puzzle of the Day and a guest columnist for the Financial Times. He has coached three BBC presenters as part of the BBC Breakfast Maths Challenge. He is co-author of the Monkman & Seagull Quiz Book and is currently writing his own book The Life Changing Magic of Numbers out this October.
1. What’s your earliest memory of doing mathematics?
I have a strong memory of learning my times tables, of sitting there with my dad working on them, a massive 12 x 12 grid on the wall. I was a competitive child, and although I didn’t have relational understanding yet, the memorising became like a game to me. I also remember early success in school, with round-the-world type games with times tables, mostly because I was quick at recall, so I developed the confidence to progress. However being good at times tables doesn’t make you a good mathematician but it can lay the foundations of building confidence in your ability!
2. How has mathematics education changed in the time you have been involved in it?
Compared to when I was a student, there seems to be – at least on the surface - a greater emphasis on solving problems and a lesser emphasis on drill and practice. Now, I think teaching maths encompasses more of trying to help pupils to understand and apply concepts in strange contexts. My pupils often say to me: ‘Sir, can’t we just have numbers without any wordy bits?’ – but I say in the real world, numbers don’t present themselves nicely, we have to learn to recognise them as they are, in the contexts that they appear.
3. Tell me about a time in your career when something totally flabbergasted you.
This is more in my banking career, than in teaching - I was a trader at Lehman Brothers before their collapse. When I worked in finance, I saw first-hand the toxic debt packages which resulted in the financial world imploding. These models would predict unlimited growth for indefinite periods of time without thinking about a Black Swan-type event. As a mathematician I know all too well about bell curves - but in the financial world they never seemed to question these models, or perhaps the moral impact of the knock-on effects of what could happen. As a junior person in this world I just accepted it. I was working there when it collapsed. Suddenly, it was cardboard boxes for everyone except me – I had a supermarket trolley to pack my belongings in that my brother brought out for me (we thought it was less inhuman than a mere box).
4. Do you practice mathematics differently in company?
I’m definitely more persistent in public, because other people can help motivate me. I know that many mathematicians like working through problems individually in peace and quiet, but for me, maths can be a very social thing, involving a dialogue with someone else – so I think I’m a better mathematician when I work with other thinkers.
5. Do you think a brilliant maths teacher is born or made?
Oh, I think made. Obviously there is a spectrum of skills that people bring to the table, but as long as people bring basic number and language skills we can learn and develop good maths teachers. That gives me hope for teaching – no-one comes out of the womb with a whiteboard marker and perfect teaching skills – you have to go and buy/earn those. I have noticed that teaching runs in families as people respect and want to emulate their parents, although I see that being fractured right now, because teaching has changed. There just seems to much more pressure now. It used to be normal to digress, to go off on a tangent – for example a half hour anecdote about how golf related to mathematics - but it seems like teachers aren’t allowed to do that now. For me, that sort of thing helped me to love numbers. Teaching has become more professionalised which is of course a good thing, but some of the eccentricity and thus the ability to capture student may be diminished as well.
6. What’s the most fun a mathematician can have?
I think it’s when you see the shutters lift from someone else’s eyes when explaining a concept. From ‘I have no idea’ to the lighting of the fire, leading to ‘oh actually, it’s not impossible’, When someone else can appreciate what you’re seeing – when someone comes to an understanding through you – this is what we live for. I call it a ‘non-mastercard’ moment – can’t be bought…
7. Do you have a favourite maths joke?
An eccentric mathematician walks into a pub and wanders around pointing at the drinkers, telling everyone: ‘I differentiate you…and you…and you’. They look at one another, either bemused, confused or exasperated, in response. A waitress comes into the room and he turns to her: ‘I DIFFERENTIATE YOU’. She turns to him without batting an eyelid and says: ‘I’m ex, you can differentiate me all you like mate.’