Tony Parkin: Mental arithmetic, code, and churning bowels


Tony ParkinYou may still have the dream. Or rather, the nightmare. That moment when you are sitting transfixed in a classroom, wanting the earth to open and swallow you up. Your bowels have turned to some liquid that is desperately trying to find its own level. Your brain has turned to porridge, and it’s the nasty salty kind, without sugar and jam. All eyes are upon you, as your mouth flaps open and closed as if you are a goldfish out of water. Yes, it’s primary classroom mental arithmetic time again.

I am not sure how many of you readers ever visited the now sadly-departed  The Way We Were Museum, formerly part of the Wigan Pier Experience, operated by the Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust? Now already some of you are undoubtedly sniggering at the pairing of Wigan and culture? Sadly your cynicism was proved correct when the Experience closed, the emphasis swung entirely to the ‘Leisure’ bit and waterside redevelopment kicked in. ( I bet those jokes about Wigan and culture is one of the reasons why the Casino is no more, either. But don’t get me started, or diverted, today we are talking about mental arithmetic.)

But despite any sniggers, The Way We Were Museum, partly staffed by a motley crew of actors from The Wigan Pier Theatre Company, was a wonderful opportunity to experience authentic working class life from a bygone era. Accurately too, at least according to my mum and dad, who had been around for most of the last century and were stern critics of anything that didn’t ring true to their northern roots, albeit from t’ other side o’ t’ Pennines. And one of the best things it included was a Victorian school-room, with wood and metal desks with porcelain inkwells and squeaky lids, surrounded by walls with green tiles and yellow-painted planking, bearing fading blackboards and huge maps of the world where nearly the every country was pink*.

The Way We Were Victorian Classroom

Even better, the Victorian schoolroom came complete with prim but friendly school-mistress and a dour, stern headteacher, in buttoned suit and carrying a pair of canes under his arm, just like my first primary head. (Who, by the way, was 85 when he was ‘retired’, and had taught my father and my grandfather before him). These two cast members from the Wigan Pier Theatre Company had really immersed themselves in their roles, and we hapless members of the visiting public were duly loaded into the desks, and became Victorian school children for a terrifying reminder of primary school, with spellings, maths question time and mental arithmetic.

The initial spelling questions weren’t too bad, and we relaxed and smiled at each other as we got into role ourselves. Then it was sums and mental arithmetic time. And the real kicker hit when you remembered that decimalisation only happened in 1971, and that this was a recreation of a much earlier time. As we all sat rigidly in uncomfortable chairs, looking and feeling like rabbits in the headlights, the headteacher demanded that we performed such arithmetical feats as multiplying twelve sevens, or subtracting two shillings seven-pence ha’penny from £1 11s 4d. And of course, he picked on those of us who looked old enough to have experienced this for real the first time round. Bowels moved, brains mushed, and we were all transported in an instant back to one of the most horrific experiences of our school days. My dad had left school at 14 with barely a certificate to his name, whilst I went off to university at 19, but I am not sure which of us was most disturbed by reliving this shared memory. Everyone remembered why sometimes they had hated school. Mental arithmetic is a great leveller, mainly because it takes you off at the knees.

You may have seen a similar look on the eyes of various politicians over the last few years when they were challenged to answer questions on times tables and the like. Nicky Morgan, George Osborne, Ed Balls have all been there. Eyes glaze in panic, throats constrict, and to a man or woman they sternly refuse to countenance performing any such mathematical exploits in front of a camera. No doubt they all have memories of Dan Quayle mis-spelling potato that must be a mandatory part of every party’s training programme for would-be politicians. Fifteen seconds for you to enjoy forever in the comfort of your own home thanks to the wonders of YouTube ( None of us normal mortals will ever forget those bowel-churning, soggy-brained moments, which is why we are all impressed by folk who take on Mastermind, University Challenge and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Now one of the things that fills my life these days with delight and fun is working with groups of student teachers undertaking initial training. If anyone outside gets gloomy and doomy about the future of the profession I just gently point out that there is an almost universal opinion that currently we are producing some of the finest teachers ever. I tend to be of that opinion myself, especially when the sessions are going well.

So when we hit a bump going along their pedagogical highway, I really do stop short to think what is going awry. The last place I would usually tend to attribute any blame is with the trainees, given their bright eyes, performance and reputation. The vast majority are relentlessly enthusiastic about learners and learning, so if I hit something that causes them an issue, there is real cause for reflection. And last week I was doing some coding in a session and I spotted some of the same terrified glazed eyes I had seen in that Victorian classroom. And realised that debugging a code example displayed on a classroom projector for some can be just as terrifying an experience as that mental maths based on £ s d calculations on a dusty blackboard. Even when I didn’t have a cane under my arm.

It was actually a great teaching moment. We stopped and explored their memories of mental maths and random questions in their own primary classrooms, over 100 years later than the Victorian. And a significant proportion of a group of ICT specialist trainees admitted a hatred of maths based on those stomach-churning classroom moments. Like me, they were competent at calculation, but had been left emotionally scarred and with a dislike for the subject through undoubtedly well-meaning but fear-inducing pedagogy. For some my well-meaning attempt to get them to debug a piece of code had aroused similar feelings.

Now I should stress that this was only a subset of the group. Others relished the challenge and enjoyed the activity, whilst others were not emotionally involved either way. But it is a salutary thought that if we are still scarring a significant proportion of primary children with approaches to maths teaching after centuries of practice, we need to be quite careful as we introduce programming into the curriculum. We really shouldn’t inadvertently alienate a group of children, who might well have enjoyed the activity, by using a pedagogy that leaves them with similar bowel-churning feelings about code.

* – pink was a printers’ compromise for red when printing maps showing which countries were part of the British Empire