Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


My 13-year old child received the following maths problem in school:

Paul saves 4/15 of his pocket money and spends 5/12 on topping up his mobile phone. What fraction of his pocket money does he have left?

(The question was part of a sheet from Cambridge Essentials.) With a PhD in mathematics, I usually feel myself adequately qualified to deal with school maths questions, but this one stymied me. I have decided to stop blaming myself, though. This question is

  1. misleadingly formulated;
  2. ambiguous;
  3. exceptionally dependent on hidden cultural assumptions.

Let’s start with number 1. Who counts fractions of pocket money? This makes about as much sense as asking

Paul and Paulina order a pizza together. Paul eats 0.375 pizza. Paulina eats 0.5 pizza. How much pizza do they take home?

It’s like you were trying to teach children about toothbrushes, and showing them how useful they are by having them use the toothbrush to clean the floor. Sure, you can do it, but it’s really not the tool anyone would choose to use, and it doesn’t give them a fair impression of what it could really be good for.

Okay, maybe Paul lives in a socialist country, where “from each according to his ability”, so that prices are stated as fractions of your income. But it gets worse. Point 2: My first thought was that Paul had spent 11/15 of his money on other things — probably drugs — and now had to top up his phone, which cost 5/12 of his pocket money. But he only has 4/15, which is smaller, so he needs to go into debt by 5/12-4/15=3/20. Okay, that didn’t seem likely. So then I figured that the 5/12 was intended to be a proportion of the 4/15 that he has remaining. Then it would at least make a little bit of sense to express it as a fraction. (Extreme socialism: Prices are all formulated as a fraction of the money you have in your pocket. Customer: How much? Merchant: How much you got?) So the amount remaining is 4/15*7/12=7/45.

But on further discussion with my partner I recognized that neither of these versions was what was intended by the people who set the question. I was thinking in terms of a model of sequential spending: The money you “save” is the money you have available to spend the next time an expense arises. The question, though, presumes that money that is “saved” is being saved from yourself. Whereas I would think that the money you “save” is part of — or possibly identical with — the money you “have left”, you were supposed to think of spending and saving as just two different ways of losing money. You add the two together to get a total loss of 4/15+5/12=17/30, leaving Paul with 13/30 pocket money units to spend on non-mobile-phone and non-banking expenses. (Probably drugs.)

Of course, I’m overthinking this. The point is that you’re not supposed to think. You’re just supposed to see two fractions and add them, because that’s what you’ve been learning to do. It’s a kind of pseudo-applied maths problem that is quite common — even at university level — where any actual thought about the issues involved will only penalise you. It’s a puzzle, where you’re supposed to read through the irrelevant verbiage to get to the maths problem that has been concealed there.

I call this “adding up the temperatures”, after the story by Richard Feynman (in Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman) about his time evaluating textbooks for the state of California. He describes a problem from one elementary school textbook:

Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees, Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a temperature of … (some big number).

John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?

Feynman points out that the temperatures aren’t really right, and that there is no such thing as green and violet stars, which he is willing to tolerate, but then blows up at the sheer pointlessness of adding up temperatures. Like the above, it only looks like an application of the mathematical tool being presented (in this case addition).

But I’m even more amazed at the absurdity of the story. How is it possible that John sees only 3 stars, his father sees 4, and they see completely different stars? But the point is, in school mathematics you’re supposed to do, not think.

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