Don's Diary

October 18, 1996

Thursday. Strike action threatened on London underground tomorrow. Demonstrate GNVQ-type competence in "using a variety of information sources" to seek alternative ways of reaching Heathrow, and carry out cost-benefit analysis.


Strike action called off, rendering verification of GNVQ-type competence impossible. Colleague Tim Harris and I land at Linkoping, Sweden, where we are invited to join the staff of Berzelius College for a fortnight. The college runs a bilingual strand to its natural science programme at pre-university level, and we are to contribute to the development of their English language mathematics provision.


Whisked off by our hosts to their summer cottage. In a country almost twice the size of Great Britain and with less than one tenth the population density, it appears usual to spend the weekends collecting wild berries in deserted forests and swimming in isolated lakes. We remark on the solitude, to be told that September heralds winter. All responsible cottage owners are busy fixing shutters, winching their yachts to dry land and pumping out septic tanks.


We are asked to teach first-year students starting the bilingual programme; their first experience of mathematics taught in English. Rashly decide to run through some basic terminology. Explain that we use a decimal point rather than a comma, not to be confused with a similar dot used to represent multiplication; that the digit "0" can variously be read as "nought", "oh", "zero" or "nil"; that the word "by" indicates division ("pi by two"), except when it indicates multiplication ("three by five metres"); and that a "sum with these numbers" is not necessarily the same as the "sum of these numbers", let alone "some of these numbers". Reflect on how ambiguous language can muddy mathematical concepts.


It is freshers' or nollas' week at the local university. The town centre is dotted with groups of nollas in fancy dress performing pointless tasks - jumping off small boxes, running in circles carrying a car roof rack, dancing blindfold in the fountain - while being shouted at by final-year students with blackened faces and wearing boiler suits. The local townsfolk go about their business as if nothing was happening. Wonder what rag week is like . . .

Meet with a group of teachers for a beer. Conversation soon turns to high taxation and how the "Swedish model" is wearing thin. Teachers are being expected to take on increased workloads. Sick pay has been cut. Teachers no longer get free school meals. Few new staff are being appointed, the average age of staff at most schools is over 50. Meanwhile, the newspapers carry regular reports of corruption among local government officials. We avoid the temptation to match the moans with ones of our own from the UK, and try not to drink the hideously expensive beer too quickly.


Uncover financial irregularities down at the supermarket. The Swedish krona (worth about 10p) is divided into 100 ore, but the smallest coin is 50 ore. This means the total bill at the checkout is automatically rounded to the nearest 50 ore. Thus three items each priced Kr5.10 would cost Kr15.50 if purchased together, but only Kr15.00 if purchased separately. Immediately start to devise a strategy to optimise the partitioning of a trolley of goods to keep the total cost to a minimum.


Berzelius College has its own freshers' party. Fancy dress abounds. Lecturers are instructed to warn their classes not to throw eggs while on college property. This is solemnly translated into English for our benefit. Run an in-service training session for local teachers on the implications of computer algebra systems for mathematics teaching. End up in a lively discussion on the nature and validity of computer-assisted proof. Adjourn for coffee to the college's Cybercafe, run profitably by a committee of final-year students. The room is humming with teenagers surfing the web, editing their home pages and chatting online, all in the English language.


Picture of good self in newspaper, grinning inanely at class of keen-looking students. The local tabloid obviously wishes to match yesterday's "policeman-shoots-elk" leader with a "fancy-doing-maths-in-English" report. The college principal is reportedly less keen about the headline: "Your Classes are Too Big", a brash conclusion drawn by the reporter from our comment that A-level maths classes of 30 are unusual in Britain. Keep a low profile.


Spend weekend with different colleagues at their summer cottage. Even fewer signs of life in the forests and on the lakes. The Scandinavian sun sits low in the sky, and we hardly spare a thought for the enrolment and induction headaches back at home.

David Bowers

Senior lecturer in mathematics at University College Suffolk, in Ipswich.

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