Adam Spencer talks maths


Listen to Australia's favourite numbers man Adam Spencer chat with James O'Loghlin on loving maths for our kids' sake and what to do when it's all too hard.

Views expressed in interviews may not be the views of the NSW Department of Education and Communities.

At a glance

  • Maths helps kids to get into university courses such as physics, business, computers, or anything that requires logic and problem-solving.
  • Celebrate your child's maths successes.
  • Find an interesting angle to the subject – your child may be keen to learn more about the mathematics of risk taking, for example.
  • Help your child understand the importance of genuinely understanding a maths concept before they go on to the next one.
  • Kids can't cram maths, especially concepts half understood; the foundations must first be in place.
  • Encourage your child to study with a friend who understands the topic if they're finding themselves out of their depth.

James O'Loghlin
Hello and welcome to School A to Z, I'm James O'Loghlin.

Now we probably all remember doing maths, but when it comes to helping the kids with it … what was integration again? Calculus, algebra, it all gets a bit wobbly doesn't it? Even the 11 times tables are sometimes a bit hard! How can we help our kids with maths we don't actually remember?

It's not history where you can just say, "Look, the causes of the Second World War are kind of complicated"; maths has a right and a wrong answer. And more importantly perhaps, how can we engender into the kids who are studying it a love – perhaps not a love, but at least an enthusiasm, an enjoyment – of maths?

The person to talk to is definitely Adam Spencer. He is the breakfast host on 702 ABC Sydney and he has also studied maths at university and communicated about it effectively for a long period of time on Sleek Geeks and also out in the wider community.

Adam, thanks for talking to us about maths.

Adam Spencer
Absolute pleasure James, always happy to talk numbers.

Firstly, we will get to 'how' in a minute, but why is it important to engender an enthusiasm for maths in kids when a lot of people say, "Well, after school you never do much of it"?

Let me go back one step further and acknowledge on behalf of mathematics that it does have a bit of an image problem in that sense. And I can completely understand why some parents would have feelings of fear, trepidation and revulsion at the idea of having to communicate mathematics effectively to their kids.

Being taught mathematics badly or having bad maths experiences can scar you for a long, long time, and there are aspects of it that are so frustrating for someone who loves the discipline! There are aspects of maths curricula in primary and high school where you find yourself thinking, "If a subject went out of its way to design itself in a way that is more frustrating or seems less relevant than mathematics, it would struggle to beat it", and it's so frustrating.

Sometimes with mathematics, it is a building block subject. There are some basics you need to know before you can progress to the next level. Sometimes, unfortunately, a lot of the basics are pretty tedious; they seem boring. And a lot of the time people lose their interest at that first slamming your head against a brick wall stage of "Why do we need to do this?"

The reason it is best to have a degree of numeracy and an understanding of mathematics – and I'm talking more the nuts and bolts rather than being able to do a PhD – is that you can say, in a flowery sense, that mathematics is the music with which the symphony of the universe is written. I mean it is everywhere. There is a range of disciplines to which you can apply mathematics successfully, if you are reasonably good at mathematics at a high school level, and it can help you in mathematical-type subjects.

It can help you at university if you want to do physics, but if you want to do anything relating to business, if you want to do anything relating to computers, if you want to do anything relating to a host of areas where you might have to just apply logic and solve problems – it might have nothing to do with actual mathematics as their base. All of these sort of areas are enhanced by having problem-solving abilities.

Give an example … your job, where it doesn't look like a maths job apart from working out whether a song is going to crash you into news, how do you use your thinking skills from maths being a radio announcer?

My ability to plan and organise time on the run, knowing that this will take roughly four minutes and that should take six minutes, so "Hey, we just don't have time to put that there guys", while other people will be going, "Oh, it will sort-of fit". I'm intuitively very good spatially with time. I tend to be pretty organised in my day-to-day life because I do leave enough time for things, I don't allow things to run over, I have a rough idea of how things are planning out; the way I think is quite logical and mathematical. That sometimes is a source of discussion with my wife because I'll be saying, "Look it would make more sense if I took the kids, you did the shopping, you get back, I will do that, see we would have already visited your mother by then!"

It would help in interviews too, wouldn't it?

Absolutely, even just the logical thinking and problem-solving ability helps. A lot of people with a maths degree end up in, say, a business consultancy, advising companies on how to restructure their workforce or what computer system they need. It's not mathematical but they can be given a problem, they can think logically about it, they can go from there. But also in day-to-day life, I've got friends, who now have got two kids, they are thinking about whether they should have a third kid or not, that would involve the mother going part-time in her work, which would reduce income a certain bit, but you're going to get the baby bonus that will allow six months, this and that, housing rates are 8.8 per cent they might go up to 10 per cent …


And that person couldn't tell you that 9 x 7 is …63. Having even a basic but strong numeracy to you is something that really can give you a lot of advantage in life.

OK, that's the 'why'. Now let's get into the 'how'. Before we get into the nuts and bolts, how do you try and engender an enthusiasm for maths in someone who isn't naturally enthusiastic about it at school?

There are a few things, first of all celebrate those persons' successes when they happen. Maths – as you said it's only right or wrong – and it can be a horribly defeating subject, where before you get on top of something you might get a question in that area wrong 10, 12, 25 times before you get one right. When your child gets one right, good on them, it's really well done, because it sometimes requires quite a degree of application and people should be congratulated for doing it.

The other secret is, having an interest in the subject is important (in any subject) and if it can be encouraged you should do that. There's a lot of fascinating things on the internet to use for examples. You remember the Chaos mathematics that we heard about – all those amazing self-similar repeating pictures? Search for ‘Chaos' on the internet or ‘fractals', and there are some mind-blowing pictures and images just of one small thing related to mathematics that you can get your head around. It's a long time before your kid will be studying that, but it shows maths in a sort of cool light. The mathematics of gambling, the mathematics of risk taking, the mathematics of placing a bet, for example are also interesting to people.

But also the real secret to getting someone on top of mathematics is to make them realise our natural temptation to get halfway through something and just memorise or cram the answer, is more self-defeating in mathematics than in just about any other subject. If you get halfway through a chapter in history, you can cram a few dates, go and start the next chapter from a blank slate and you will be fine. In mathematics, the moment you start memorising stuff you don't understand, you're stuffed. Because all the future work that builds upon an understanding of that will be no good. If you don't have those foundations in place, there's only so much you can cram into your memory.

You have to try to convince someone by saying: "Look, you don't understand that formula, you're just trying to memorise it. You're going to do that to get through that test this Friday. Three months later when you have that test again, you're going to have to cram that into your memory because you would have forgotten it. And again at the end of that year, and in Year 9, and in Year 10, and in Year 11 and in Year 12 … between now and the end of the HSC, you will try and cram that into your memory 14 times. The total amount of time it takes to do that is longer than it would take to understand once."

Now I did the old 4-unit HSC maths back in 1986. I got 200 out of 200 because I was pretty good at maths. If I did that again this year, I'd get 180 or 190 or so, and it would take me more than three hours. I would have to start with a blank bit of paper and work stuff out. But I actually understood it at the time, I learnt it, and you never lose it as a result. Whatever you cram into your memory you forget 20 seconds after you hand in the test paper or walk out of an exam. The single biggest thing you can give someone to get a grasp on mathematics in any level, is be honest with yourself and genuinely understand this before you go on to the next bit.

OK, now what about specifically? If you're probably all right helping your child with the eight times tables, but when it gets up a little bit more and advances to things you remember by name, like integration or derivatives, but that's as far as it goes, how can you provide any assistance then?

Realistically, as a parent who wants to support a child in Year 11 or 12 in mathematics, you've either got to have quite a decent look at it yourself, or be willing to bring in someone who can help. And I think there is more of a case for decent tuition in mathematics than there is in most subjects. I think most parents could read a chapter on history if they had a couple of hours or half an hour and could then engage in a discussion dealing with what's there. It is a bit of a big ask to expect someone who hasn't looked at mathematics for 25 years to read about exponential growth and decay, and pass it on.

So this is where the parent has to be honest. If deep down you know that you don't understand what you're explaining to your child, and if you're cutting corners in your understanding and your explanation … if you find yourself saying to your kid, "Well look, it just is, just write it, that's what they're writing …", then stop. That's when you have to realise you're out of your depth and you should get someone who can help.

And then does your role become more of a cheer squad/morale leader? And saying to your kid, "Can you explain that to me?"

Yeah exactly, it becomes about being supportive. If your kid can explain something to you in mathematics and you go, "Wow, thanks for that", what a great victory that would be for your child to realise that they can be a teacher.

Maybe it's also about encouraging your kid to spend a bit of time with their friend who you know is pretty solid in the subject, and in return you can help them with something else. If there is one kid who is good in the area, why doesn't that kid organise every weekend for a couple of hours for three or four mates to come over to their place to sit around and talk about the stuff? You can then support that kid in other study areas that they need or pay them a bit of money or whatever.

Mathematics is one area where just a sheer sort of "I'll help you, son or daughter, don't worry", might sometimes be, at the pointy end of the subject, a bit tough. But a lot of the introductory levels of mathematics, through to Year 12, parents can get their head around if they take a bit of time.

Or perhaps encourage them to ring you up on the radio between 5.30am and 7.45 am in Sydney?

When I was on Triple J, I used to do on-air maths coaching in the week leading up to the HSC and the VCE. And people would say they loved it because it would just be me and some kid and I'd be saying, "No, no, no … its x cubed, isn't it?", and you'd hear this kid from outback Queensland going, "Oh yeah! Come on!"

Kids give us a call, but I can't guarantee I'll be there…

Adam Spencer, thank you very much.

No trouble at all, James. Best of luck, parents.


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Adam Spencer
Adam Spencer

A consummate learner, Adam Spencer holds a first class honours degree in pure mathematics and has an immense interest in science. Adam's book Little Book of Numbers has been translated into many languages around the world. He began his career in radio by winning the Triple J Raw Comedy championship in 1996. From there Adam became a casual presenter, and eventually took over the coveted TRIPLE J breakfast time slot, co hosting with Wil Anderson from 1999 to 2004. He produced the ABC Sleek Geeks television series with Dr Karl Kruszelnicki and presents the breakfast show for 702 ABC Sydney.



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