Maths gets messy

By Greg Clarke, Teacher of Maths

I am not sure what you are supposed to do first thing on a wintery Tuesday morning in lockdown, but how about an hour of mind-bending maths problem solving?! That is the reality for a flourishing community of Bedales students as we gather to address a range of enigmas, conundrums and posers that would challenge the intellect of any Bedalian, old or new, even – dare I say – that arch puzzler, Gyles Brandreth!

Messy Maths at 8.20am on Tuesdays in the Garrett Time activity slot has something for everyone. In the first week of lockdown, we looked at some of the hardest ever GCSE maths questions, including one or two problems that caused a furore on social media amongst students at the time. This was ideal for our most fearless students, particularly those thinking about doing or already doing Further Maths at A Level. For others, who understandably wanted a gentler start to a Tuesday morning, there were puzzles starting at one-star, such as: ‘A cage contains birds and rabbits. There are 16 heads and 38 feet. How many birds are in the cage?’

From there, you can move onto two-star problems. Just this week, we have introduced three-star problems and they are getting difficult: one mentions the radicals of a triplet of relatively prime positive integers, which gave me a queasy turn as I recalled baffling university lectures (it’s like that dream where it’s the night before your finals and you haven’t done any revision and you’ve forgotten everything because you haven’t been a student for 30 years!) So, it’s no surprise that I can’t find the inclination to contemplate the four-star problems just yet.

To complete the picture of what goes on in Messy Maths, we also offer the Oxford and Cambridge maths entrance questions for our serious-minded sixth formers. At the beginning, I thought I was going to be bombarded with questions, but everyone just gets on with thinking about what to do for themselves and the only time I ever get called upon is to answer the most popular question: “Can I check my answer?”

Block 3 student and Messy Maths regular Shoshana Yugin-Power says: “I have been really enjoying the maths and I am hopefully going to do some more work on sin and cos over the weekend.” Shoshana is one of around 100 Bedales students who entered the UK Intermediate Maths Challenge this week, an annual maths competition that has shifted online this year. Bedales has a good success record for several years, with plenty of Gold, Silver and Bronze awards, as well as invitations to the next challenge – the Kangaroo. 

Like I said, Messy Maths has something for everyone. Have you tried the birds and rabbits question yet? The answer is… Sorry, you’ll just have to come along to find out!