National Numeracy Day: the Maths of Life

This week (on 17th May) was National Numeracy Day – a day designed to help raise low levels of numeracy among both adults and children in the UK, and to promote the importance of everyday maths skills. The day aims to challenge negative attitudes towards maths and numbers, influence public policy and offer practical ways to help adults and children improve their numeracy.

We share the vision of the National Numeracy Trust. We also want to enable all our students to be confident and competent with using numbers and data, so they can make good decisions in their daily lives. Our strong Maths curriculum is testament to this, as is the fact that Maths is currently the most popular subject in our Sixth Form.

Understanding numbers and data is more important now than ever. The advent of ChatGPT this year, and the announcement that Google will be using AI within its search function, has highlighted the fact that we are entering a new era of partnership between humans and computers. Machine learning and artificial intelligence, driven by algorithms and the analysis of stupendously large datasets, will be an ever-increasing feature of all our lives over the coming years. The children we are teaching now will grow up in that world: we need to teach them to be ready.

Data is a massive part of all our lives, and it moves quickly. I can remember, when I started teaching in 1997, that we got the first computer in our English Department, and we used it to collect the exam results in a spreadsheet. It was an absolute revelation that we were able to show which students had done well in specific questions at the click of a mouse, and work out which bits of the curriculum to revise with them. Such analysis is now taken completely for granted, and it is layered with masses of additional information to enable us to make informed decisions about our work.

And this is not, of course, unique to education: every industry relies on data to help make sensible decisions, whatever the inputs and outputs – from healthcare to finance, engineering to retail, entertainment to research. Understanding that data, spotting and interpreting the patterns within it, and being able to manipulate it to reach informed conclusions, is an essential employability skill for a whole range of occupations.

Dr Hannah Fry shows why spotting patterns in data is essential for car racing, space exploration, government and more

But, at Churchill, we don’t see maths as purely utilitarian. We strongly believe that maths should be enjoyable for its own sake – for its elegance, its complexity and simplicity, for the stories that it can tell about our world, and for its quirky fun. I remember, for example, Mr Gale telling me about Belphegor’s Prime – a bizarre palindromic prime number which is a 1, followed by thirteen zeroes, followed by 666, followed by another thirteen zeroes and a final 1: 1000000000000066600000000000001. This number reads the same forwards as backwards; it is only divisible by itself and one; it contains 31 digits (which is 13 backwards). No wonder, with all these traditionally bad luck numbers layered into it, that the number was named after Belphegor, one of the seven princes of Hell, who is known primarily for tempting mortals with the gift of discovery and invention! What I find even stranger that 1000000000000077700000000000001 is also a prime number…

I have always been grateful to my maths education – even as an English Language and Literature graduate. It taught me to look for patterns, to analyse and try to understand the deeper structure of the thing that I was looking at – whether a poem, a play, a novel or, in my teaching career, a dataset, a budget or a behaviour or attendance record. This is what we aim for in our maths curriculum at Churchill – and, looking at our thriving sixth form uptake, it looks like it’s paying off.

Assembly: The 1960s

This year marks the Diamond Jubilee of Churchill Academy, which opened its doors as Churchill Community School in January 1957. To mark this anniversary, we are having an assembly in each term looking back on the decades that the school has existed. This term, it’s been my job to look back on the 1960s.


The Sixties: what a decade

When looking at this amazing decade, I could have chosen from such a wide range of events, movements, and people – I was spoilt for choice! But for me, the iconic image of the 1960s comes from the end of the decade.


Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon in 1969 (Source: NASA)

The moon landings still represent the zenith of human scientific achievement. I have written before about the so-called “moonshot thinking” of President Kennedy who, in September 1962, gave a speech at Rice Stadium where he said that America would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade. He said:

“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

We have a lot to learn from Kennedy’s ambition, from his choice to take on the difficult task because it is worth it, and because trying to achieve it will make us better.

However, my assembly does not  focus on John F. Kennedy, Neil Armstrong, or Buzz Aldrin, but another hero of the space programme – and one you may not have heard as much about. That hero is Katherine Johnson.


Katherine G. Johnson at NASA in 1966 (source)

Johnson was born in 1918, in Greenbrier County, West Virginia. She showed an early interest in mathematics:

“I counted everything. I counted the steps to the road, the steps up to church, the number of dishes and silverware I washed … anything that could be counted, I did.”

However, Greenbrier County did not offer schooling for black students past the eighth grade, the equivalent of our Year 9. Johnson, however, knew that she was going to be a mathematician, so her family split their time between Greenbrier County and Kanawha County, where Katherine could attend High School. In 1938, Johnson became the first African American woman to attend the graduate school at West Virginia University, following the United States Supreme Court ruling which  allowed for the integration of different races in American education.

Joined NASA in 1953 when it was still called NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. At first she worked in a pool of technical women performing math calculations, known as “computors”. Katherine has referred to the women in the pool as virtual “computers who wore skirts.” But her skill with analytic geometry meant that she was soon working  on the all-male flight team. While the racial and gender barriers were always there, Katherine says she ignored them.

What was it that made her so successful? She remembers quite clearly her experience at the time. “The women did what they were told to do,” she explained. “They didn’t ask questions or take the task any further. I asked questions; I wanted to know why. They got used to me asking questions and being the only woman there.”


Original profile of the 1959 Mercury Mission to put the first American in space (source)

She calculated the trajectory for the space flight of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, in 1959. She also calculated the launch window for his 1961 Mercury mission. In 1962, when NASA used electronic computers for the first time to calculate John Glenn’s orbit around Earth, officials called on her to verify the computer’s numbers because Glenn asked for her personally and refused to fly unless Katherine verified the calculations. She calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon, and worked out how to get the astronauts on Apollo 13 safely back to Earth when they called back to say “Houston, we have a problem.” She went on to work on the space shuttle programme, and she did preliminary work on the trajectory for a manned mission to Mars before her retirement in 1986. Last November, at the age of 98, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Barack Obama for her contribution to space flight, civil rights and gender equality.

Katherine Johnson is a truly inspirational figure, undaunted by the fact that she was born into a world which was prejudiced against both her gender and her skin colour. She new that she had something to offer, and she was assertive enough to make sure she was heard. We can all benefit from her advice: “I was always around people who were learning something. I liked to learn. You learn if you want to. So you’ve got to want to learn.”

Finally, now, they’re making a film about her:

Why “I can’t do it” won’t do


Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph, motion picture camera, and the light bulb – he knew a thing or two about persistence (image source)

What are the biggest barriers to learning? Of course, there are many difficulties and problems which face us all when we are learning something new. We may not have the resources available; we might not have the right environment in which to learn; we might not have the skills or prior knowledge we need to grasp the concept. However, I think the biggest barrier to learning is our own attitude – the tendency to give up when it gets difficult, to throw up our hands and say “I can’t do it!”

I remember interviewing a student (let’s call her Emma*)  for a place in the sixth form a few years ago. Her mum was with her and she was really struggling in Maths. “I can’t do Maths,” she said. Her mum turned to her and said, “don’t worry, I can’t do Maths either.” Needless to say, Emma didn’t get the grade she needed in Maths to get into the sixth form. I’m sure her mum was trying to help, to offer some comfort to her daughter who was struggling with some difficult concepts. But the notion that not being able to do Maths is somehow okay gave Emma permission to believe that she genuinely couldn’t do Maths – and this wasn’t the case. Anyone can do Maths. Everyone can do Maths. But you need to work at it, and you need to believe you can do it.

Imagine for a moment if Emma had been struggling with reading. Would her mum have turned to her with the same comfort? “Don’t worry, I can’t read either.” This just wouldn’t happen, and we need to have the same attitude to all our learning.

Luckily, there is a solution – and it’s one simple word. That word is YET. Adding the word “yet” to  the end of a “giving up” phrase is a simple way of reminding us that learning is a process.

  • I can’t do it…YET
  • I don’t understand it…YET
  • I’m no good at painting…YET
  • I tried question 4 and I couldn’t do it…YET
  • I’m not a Maths person…YET

The only way we can guarantee failure is if we give up. Until then, everything we’re doing is learning. What “YET” does is it says that this is a skill which is acquired over time. It’s not something you’re necessarily going to get instantly. There’s a learning curve, and to be successful we need to stay on that curve.

Even Sesame Street have tuned into the power of YET with a catchy tune from Janelle Monae. Enjoy…

You didn’t do it right now, but keep trying, you’ll learn how

You just didn’t get it yet, but you’ll get it soon I bet

That’s the power of yet. 

*Names have been changed.