PUPILS
SUM
UP MATHS
TEACHERS
AS FAT
NERDS
By Simon de Bruxelles
MATHEMATICIANS are fat, scruffy and have no friends  in
any language. Youngsters from seven countries, asked to come
up with a portrait of the typical mathematician, showed a
badly dressed, middleaged nerd with no social life.
Schoolchildren as far apart as Romania, England and America
took part in the study conducted by a researcher from the
Centre for Teaching Mathematics at Plymouth University. The
300 children, aged 12 and 13, also drew pen and ink portraits
of the "archetypal mathematician".
One English pupil added a caption that read:
"Mathematicians have no friends, except other
mathematicians, not married or seeing anyone, usually fat,
very unstylish, wrinkles in their forehead from thinking so
hard, no social life whatsoever, 30 years old, a very short
temper."
Most children drew white men with glasses, often with a
beard, bald head or weird hair, and shirt pockets filled with
pens, who were working at a blackboard or computer. Finnish
children had an even more disturbing view of maths teachers:
several portrayed them forcing children to do sums at
gunpoint.
The study has raised concern that the widespread contempt
in which children hold maths teachers may deter talented
teenagers from studying the subject. John Berry, whose
department ran the project, said: "Overall, the image we
got from young people was a very negative one towards
mathematicians and their role. Children did not have much idea
of what mathematics was or what mathematicians do. We were
surprised the image was fairly common in all countries; even
those like Romania where maths teaching is very
successful."
He added: 'The image of mathematicians was nerdish and one
worrying aspect is that children may be put off studying maths
if they think others will see them as being nerds."
It was with some relief that he was able to report:
"As a mathematician myself, working in a mathematics
environment, I do not recognise them at all. One of the
reasons we did the research was because of the negative
attitudes people have towards mathematics and
mathematicians."
He was forced to admit that being a mathematician did
little for his social life. "If you are at a party and
tell people you're a mathematician, it's the worst turnoff
you can imagine," he said.
Researchers will now look at ways to give mathematicians a
more positive image. Susan Picker, an American Phd student who
conducted the research, said: "All maths teachers who
have seen these images at first found them amusing but soon
realized that this is how their students see them, and it is a
sobering thought.
"We would like to see businesses promoting the
positive side of mathematics and showing how many of those who
study it go on to become researchers, engineers, computer
programmers and so on."
Unflattering portrait: how
one child in the survey sees mathematicians
