William The Maths Bear's Paws For Thought' November 2016

7th November 2016

Hello Tiny Humans!

I recently read about a 13 year old girl in Scotland who was top in her maths class and decided to consult the Scottish government's online careers advice service ‘My World Of Work’.

A statement on the site says “The quiz uses a theory by American psychologist John L Holland… We’ll use your answers to build up a picture of you, and find the three personality types you’re most like… You’ll get a report, and suggestions for careers which might suit you.” There are other requirements including, Ambition, Strengths, Skills, Education and Experience. 

Despite excelling academically, after answering all of the questions the girl was shocked to read the recommendations for her future career - chimney sweep, acupuncturist, bodyguard or hairdresser.

Wartime Chimney Sweep

Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a chimney sweep, an acupuncturist, a bodyguard or a hairdresser - but they don't seem the most appropriate careers for someone who is excelling in maths. The girl’s father told the Dundee Courier “Three of her female top maths set friends also got chimney sweep. She said the whole class was laughing at their results.”

“In essence, either the website was downgrading her aspirations or was churning out stock results – not a great way to develop Scotland’s young work force.”

The Dundee Courier got politicians and journalists to take the tests and they received varied recommendations such as stuntman, art teacher, childminder, nanny, IT trainer and EU official. Hmmm….

Now, this may just be an extreme example of an automated system going wrong, and perhaps they did not fill it in 100% correctly but the fact that 3 other girls, who were also in the top set at maths received a similar result is a bit worrying!

She may have an interest in hair dressing or health but that doesn’t mean she is destined to become a hairdresser or an acupuncturist. She may have enjoyed Mary Poppins or housework but that doesn’t mean she has to be a chimney sweep!

The Chimney Sweep Scene in Mary Poppins

I took a similar test once, and it recommended that I become a bear – specifically a fisher-bear - but I wanted more. So I signed up to ConquerMaths and now I have a great job as a maths ambassador! Never let others tell you what you should do with your life, especially when a machine comes out with something ridiculous like that.

To get some proper insight into the best careers for mathematically proficient folk we suggest mathscareers.org.uk, an excellent site geared towards showing people just how many fascinating and lucrative careers are open to them with good maths skills and qualifications, and I highly recommend it. 

Energy Fail

Meanwhile in London a well-intentioned poster promoting energy saving has had its proclamations savaged by simple mathematics. The poster was installed in an office by The Carbon Trust (who do great work by the way) and in an attempt to encourage workers to turn off their photocopiers overnight claimed that doing so would save energy equivalent to that used to make a whopping 30 cups of sweet British tea.

Now to be fair, as a bear I’m not allowed to use the photo copier anymore (something about big claws, shredded paper in the paper tray etc.) but it does seem like a lot of tea!

Indeed, one eagle eyed and presumably professionally pedantic maths lover called them out. He or she took the time to calculate exactly how much power would actually be saved if they turned off their particular office’s photocopier when not in use.

Their calculations indicate that the power saved would be roughly equivalent to the energy needed to make… half a cup of tea.

Not satisfied with being right, they then posted their calculations on the wall next to the poster, much to the amusement of their colleagues, one of which Tweeted both images.

It gets better. Someone Tweeted the image to The Carbon Trust asking them to explain themselves, but they got a reasonable response – that the poster is out of date but that it is great to see levels of efficiency in technology improving, including the original calculations used to make the poster. Fair enough!

Now both of these organisations are there to do good work and it seems unfair to mock them for making mistakes, particularly the Carbon Trust.

However when it comes to careers advice, I can't help but worry about 'My World Of Work'. Giving bad careers advice could knock a student’s confidence and self-worth and as the Scottish lassie’s father said, this could downgrade their aspirations. This is something we at ConquerMaths never want to see happen, especially when a student is excelling in a subject as important as maths!

So we hope someone has a good look at the calculations behind the 'My World Of Work' website’s recommendations so students are given appropriate, helpful and inspiring advice in future.

Until next month, Tiny Humans!