Making Maths Count

Learning AND laughing – maths gets murderous

February 23, 2016 by No Comments | Category Books

Can maths be fun? Author Kjartan Poskitt certainly thinks so. His Murderous Maths books have been entertaining children, and educating them on the side, for 20 years. Ahead of his show at the Edinburgh International Science Festival next month, he spoke to us about the approach he takes to get children enjoying maths.

About 20 years ago I’d written my Killer Puzzle books, but then was asked to write one book called Murderous Maths. I said no. What was the point? At the time I was presenting children’s TV, making music and doing comedy shows. It was all great fun, so I couldn’t see why any perfectly normal kid would go into a shop or library and ask for a book with MATHS written on the front.

Kjartan Poskitt taking his murderous maths into schools

Kjartan Poskitt taking his murderous maths into schools

Eventually I did agree to one book BUT… I insisted it would have to have cartoons, silly characters, funny stories, tricks and puzzles. That’s because my plan was to write a funny book, which just happened to have a few numbers in it. What came as a shock is that after I’d done the first book, I kept finding more and more fun stuff so that now, 20 years later, there have been about 20 Murderous Maths books translated into about 20 different languages (none of which I can read, so I hope they’ve got it all right!).

I still wonder why it worked so well, but I think it comes down to two things.

First, I never took the maths too seriously. Oh yes, all the sums and numbers are correct, checked, double-checked and ticked, plus all my explanations are as clear as I can make them, but we’re here to have FUN! For a start I’ve NEVER used the word “mathematics” because it sounds so pompous that it makes my nose bleed. Some people get terribly serious thinking about numbers and shapes (e.g. is 1 a prime number? Where is the middle of a triangle?). In my books we have four utterly nutty pure mathematicians who usually solve their arguments by breaking eggs over their heads or having a good old punch-up.


Measuring a Roman mile

Measuring a Roman mile

Second, kids are far more open-minded than a lot of adults realise and they’re not put off by MATHS on the cover. My priority was always to make the books entertaining. They always start with a silly story, it’s only later you realise numbers are involved. It’s like taking a new car for a drive. You check the seats are comfy, you see how fast it goes, you put the radio on … and finally you might think about how the engine works. In my books, maths is the engine. I’ll show you a couple of puzzles or tricks, then if you like them, I’ll show you how the maths makes them work.

So that’s it really. I’ve just been using maths to have fun, not only in the books but also on stage. For instance in “Desperate Measures” I explain how long an ancient Roman mile is. It’s 1,000 paces, but Romans counted two steps as one pace. So if you want to measure a Roman mile you need to wear one flip flop and one stiletto shoe and walk along a damp beach. When you’ve made 1000 little holes, that’s a Roman mile. In the same book Pongo McWhiffy makes his egg and sprout broth, and after a few sums involving measurements and litres, he accidentally makes a very smelly rocket fuel. Yay!

Numbers as characters

Fun with measurements

Fun with measurements

The numbers themselves also behave like little characters. 11 is very different from 12. If you don’t believe me, get a bag of 11 sweets and try to share it fairly between 2 screaming toddlers. Or 3 toddlers, or 4 or 6. It’s easy with 12 sweets, but with 11? You’ll need ear plugs. My personal favourite number is 12,988,816. Why? Because that’s the number of different ways you can arrange 32 dominoes on a chess board. No, I did NOT work it out, but I have a massive admiration for whoever it was that did.

And before I finish, here’s a quick trick you can try on someone (or practise on yourself) …

Tell them to think of a number.

Add 3

Multiply by 5

Add 8

Multiply by 2

Tell your friend the answer has a 6 on the end. Watch as their jaw falls open in total amazement.

Cross the 6 off the end.

Ask your friend to tell you what answer they’ve got left.

* Secretly – take away 4 from this answer! *

Tell your friend the final answer – it will be the number they started with!

How does it work? Easy: 2(5(x+3)+8) = 10x + 46. But if you think that bit of maths is too murderous to bother with, ignore it. The trick still works – so forget the fancy algebra. Just have fun!

Kjartan Poskitt will be bringing Murderous Maths to the Edinburgh International Science Festival next month.

(illustrations by Philip Reeve)

What do you think? Would injecting more fun into maths have engaged you as a youngster? Do you already think maths is fun? Making Maths Count wants people across Scotland to tell us what you think about maths and how you use it in your life. Get involved and fill in our questionnaire

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