Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Only a child can do it

The account of a senior family member will differ on this – in fact it differs every time he recalls it – but he's welcome to start his own blog and post it there. The gist of it is:

His version: We were on holiday ...
Me: True

His version: ... in our new car ...
Me: We’d had it for at least a year

His version: ... and I wanted to work out the miles per gallon ...
Me: Not having done this in the previous year of ownership

His version: ... and even though he'd just done his exams ...
Me: A-levels. My last maths exam ever had been two years earlier.

His version: ... Ben couldn't work it out because HE CAN'T DO LONG DIVISION.
Me: Live with it.

No, I can't do long division. I never could. There's a crack in my brain that long division just falls through. It's a form of arithmetic that relies on guess work. How can you do sums where you have to guess part of the answer anyway?

Short division, no problem, along with addition, subtraction and multiplication. I can do pretty good mental arithmatic, I can handle different bases and percentages, I can even do sums (with a little thought) in Roman numerals. But long division never made any sense to me and still doesn’t, despite just seeing it explained in a video halfway down this page. It's why God invented calculators.

However, I'm sufficiently proud of my other achievements to agree fully with the tone of the piece, which is that ignorance in maths is nothing to be proud of, so why do we indulge those who boast about it rather than laugh and point a finger and jeer, "ooh, thicky!". I too squirm whenever I hear some TV celebrity proudly admitting to being useless at it. It explains why those people were only able to become TV celebrities rather than do something useful with their lives. I have never been academically accomplished at it (a C at O-level) but that's a long way away from being useless. But at the same time we're not all Carol Vorderman, you know.

Yes, I know Carol Vorderman is a TV celebrity. Go away.

Tom Lehrer never did a song on long division, but as division is basically subtraction repeated, here's one he did do.


  1. I'm sitting my a-level further maths this week but I can't and never could do mental maths. For a long time I was in middle set for maths. I used to hate it. People who know me now are astonished when I tell them this.

    Once we started doing algebra I found my mind was wired up for maths concepts really well. Quite often I read a problem and find myself intuitively doing calculations but if you were to ask me why i couldn't tell you why that number divided by that one, times that one is the answer. It just is. I thrive at A-level, all papers are calculator. I totally understand the concept of division, and I could take ages and work through it, but I use a calculator.

    I'm not making my point very well here but I hope your getting what I mean. Arithmetic and mathematics are different things. One is learning algorithms, an number of steps (e.g. long division) and using them on essentially the same problem over and over. The other is solving problems where you are given some information from which you want to obtain a solution, and the test is not whether you remember and know how to use an algorithm, but whether you can work out how to get to the answer.

  2. I was absolutely fantastic at maths when I was 8 or 9, and have pretty much stayed at that level ever since.

    I'm just out of practise. I don't like maths, so I avoid it, and forget everything I ever learned as a result!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.