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Plymouth University, Professor John Berry
"Children are quite surprised to find that mathematicians are ordinary people"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 3 January, 2001, 12:15 GMT
Maths teachers 'scruffy nerds'
Maths pupil
Pupils in seven countries had bad news for maths teachers
Pupils around the world see maths teachers as badly-dressed and unpopular, say researchers.

Researchers at Plymouth University talked to school children in Europe and the United States about their perceptions of maths teachers - and found that the results were overwhelmingly negative.

Mathematicians have no friends, except other mathematicians, they're not married or seeing anyone, usually fat, very unstylish, wrinkles in their forehead from thinking so hard, no social life whatsoever, 30 years old and a very short temper.

An English pupil describes a maths teacher

Among the unflattering stereotypes of maths teachers recorded by researchers were of bad-tempered, overweight, scruffy and friendless men (and they were almost always seen as men).

And other features associated with maths teachers were beards, baldness, bad haircuts, holes in their clothes and a bleak social life.

In Finland, a pupil drew a picture of a maths teacher holding a machine gun to the head of pupils, with the warning "If these sums are wrong it is the end of you".

And in England, a pupil concluded that "mathematicians have no friends, except other mathematicians" and that they are "not married or seeing anyone".

If you are at a party and tell people you are a mathematician it is the worst turn-off you can imagine.

Professor John Berry, Plymouth University's Centre for Teaching Mathematics

Researchers talked to 12 and 13-year-old pupils in England, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany, Romania and the United States - and found a common pattern of mathematicians being held in low esteem.

"Overall the image we got from young people was a very negative one towards mathematicians and their role," said Professor John Berry of the university's Centre for Teaching Mathematics.


"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.

"As mathematician we have had to consider whether the children are right in their images and whether mathematicians are really like this. 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.

"If you are at a party and tell people you are a mathematician it is the worst turn-off you can imagine. Very often children enjoy maths until they start at secondary school and then it becomes their least favourite subject.

"We wanted to look at strategies to give mathematics a more positive image and the first thing we needed to do was to devise a measure of children's images of mathematicians. We now want to work on how to provide more positive images," he said.

The findings will not do much for a current recruitment campaign for teachers in the UK, which has found particular difficulty in hiring maths teachers.

Despite a cash incentive of 5,000 for students who sign up as trainee maths teachers, there have still been difficulties in finding enough teachers to fill vacancies.

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