Maths Week Ireland is in full swing (10-18 October) and Ni4kids’ Elizabeth McGivern was lucky enough to catch up with TV presenter, author, teacher and Maths whizz, Bobby Seagull, to chat about how the subject gets a bad rep, football stickers and how the people of Northern Ireland were the friendliest he’s ever met!
As a child, Bobby found that in a confusing world with lots of questions, maths was the key to understanding how to look at things objectively. It all started when he was eight-years-old and he began – like many kids at the time – collecting football stickers.
Recalling his school days he said: “What I found is that people would have conversations about football teams based on assertions like ‘Player A is better than Player B’ but I would take all the data found on the stickers, like: name, age, height, goals scored, left foot, right foot, penalties, and put it in a basic version of excel and I would do comparisons between players. When friends at school would make comparisons between two particular players I would come back to school the next day, having looked at my data, and say that ‘Actually my data showed that one particular player was better because of the information.’ It didn’t make me popular, but it did show me that maths gave me a good way of looking at the world objectively.
“Everyone has opinions but when you have things like numbers backing you up you can see where you’re coming from. It was through this I was able to investigate things and maths became a driving force in my life actually.”
Beyond the playground, Bobby was inspired by his form teacher and his parents to keep asking questions and he found that through maths he was able to get the answers he needed. He continued: “My greatest strength is my curiosity, I’m always wanting to find out more about the world but back then I also had a brilliant teacher to encourage me with this, called Mr Workmaster – now, that’s a name! He was an inspiring form teacher and my parents wanted us to learn about the world and maths is a great way to understand it.”
Now the tables have turned and it’s Bobby who is inspiring young minds through his job as a teacher at Little Ilford School in Newham, London, and he wants his students to understand that maths is not only fun but has many real-world applications that they will need as they grow up and leave their school days behind them.
“When I first started teaching,” he added, “I was all about getting the kids to do the sums quickly but the more I teach, I realise, you need that fluency with your basic number skills but in the real world it’s not often about who can perform a calculation in two seconds. You could be trying to apply maths to a complicated situation, it might be working out your mortgage or working out your budget for your holiday. You might not need an immediate answer, you need the right answer and that could take a bit of time. Now the way I teach I don’t try to put people on the spot, I know they’ll have exams and assessments but as much as I can I try to not make it a time-pressured thing. It’s about seeing what they can do, not how quickly they can do it. Maths isn’t a sprint, we want kids to have a life-long love of the subject and we don’t spread negative vibes with it.
“I really feel you need to find a balance of having the numeracy skills, like multiplication, so you feel confident but once that’s done it’s not about rushing it’s about developing deep thinkers who can apply their math skills to even simple things like the DIY in their house or working out how long you have to cook the turkey for at Christmas. As a teacher I have a responsibility to make them unafraid of the subject.”
Speaking to parents who may not feel as confident as they’d like about their maths skills, especially when it comes to helping their kids with tricky homework, Bobby has two bits of advice to offer:
- Your words have power. Kids remember your words and are very perceptive, if you are putting down the subject then kids will sort of feel like they have a free pass and think that they don’t need to be good at maths at school.
- If parents did find maths difficult at school I don’t think that that’s a problem. The key thing is to show their willingness to learn. If kids see their parents trying to improve their maths then they’ll feel inspired and be like ‘Even Mum or Dad struggle with this but they’re trying. This shows me that I should try hard.’ I think your attitude towards it is very important because it shows them that even though you didn’t quite get it at school, now you’re making an effort to try and work on your numeracy skills and understand the importance of it in the real world.
For the kids who are struggling with the subject he advised: “You use maths and numbers in all walks of life. From cooking to counting change, to applying it to budgets, but even if you think that numbers aren’t for you it’s good to view it as a challenge. If maths is your greatest fear and you get through it, it will really help your confidence. You can tell yourself that you got through maths, you can get through anything else. It’s like a personal Everest for people. You can look back and say: ‘It started tough but I got through it’ and just think how much confidence that will give you. Treat it like a challenge to yourself.
“Maths has such a tough reputation. It’s such an easy subject that people can talk negatively about so it’s wonderful to have Maths Week when we celebrate it and we show maths in a positive light. Kids can get carried along with the enthusiasm of it all and it means it’s easier for teachers to sell the subject in school. It’s a great week and everyone is so positive about this subject. I just have to add that I was filming in Northern Ireland for a documentary and the people there were the friendliest I’ve ever met, so it’s great to help inspire the kids through Maths Week.”
Head to mathsweek.ie to get involved with the activities going on all week and catch up with Bobby’s Maths TV sessions in which he enthusiastically talks about the beauty of mathematics and seeing the number patterns in everyday life.