How many sides does a circle have, Sir? What happens when you divide by zero, Sir? What is the biggest prime number, Sir? Is 0.9 recurring equal to 1, Sir? What is the smallest fraction, Sir? What is Pi, Sir?
Even though these questions can take a lesson off on a tangent (what is a tangent, Sir?), handled correctly they can provide the spark for a student’s life-long passion in mathematics. But they can also be intimidating, even for the most confident Maths teachers.
Incredible Numbers by Professor Ian Stewart covers eight topics, from primes to infinity to secret codes that inspire the students who have a genuine passion for the subject and a desire for a deeper understanding. Many of the students in my A-level class wish to study mathematics at university but with the time pressures of completing the syllabus the opportunities to explore some of the beautiful aspects of maths are few and far between. While designed for a general audience, the app has allowed students to explore the subject in a way that elevates maths above the traditional textbook, on iPads they’ve bought through a school scheme.
The user-friendly interface allows for easy navigation through the app, which collects eight fundamental principles of maths in one place – an efficient and refreshing alternative to searching through the vast amount of content online. It explores maths to a high level, but does so in a way that is exciting for any maths enthusiast with useful basic explanations at the start of each chapter (one student used it to teach their younger sister about Pi). While some areas lack specificity, the interactivity and bright, clean appearance captures the imagination and gives the user a sense that they themselves are bringing maths to life, guided by useful expert commentary from Ian Stewart.
This type of independent learning is a key skill that we need to foster in our children – and also one that adults will find rewarding. From being able to draw and play your own sound waves, to seeing how patterns occur in nature, to creating your own Enigma code, Incredible Numbers allows the user to visualise and play out how numbers work in the world around us. The puzzles section is also a favourite and has triggered interest in areas of maths as yet unexplored in lessons.
So, not satisfied with the usual response of “erm, erm, let’s get back to the lesson”, Incredible Numbers offers an opportunity for the student and teacher to explore these critical questions in more depth and hopefully open up an infinite (what is infinity, Sir?) number of further questions.
Christopher Fairbairn is Vice Principal at Burlington Danes Academy