Probability Tends to Zero

Teenagers are brilliant. I am glad that I don’t own any of my own, but, still, I think that teenagers are great. They have developed into that awkward liminal space between innocence and good craic. By about sixteen most of them have developed little proto-adult personalities infused still with a lovable childish quality. Quite surprisingly even to me I have also come to have a respect, a liking even, for mathematics. Youngsters in the project where I have been volunteering have a lack of maths support, and in Ireland a secondary maths qualification is a requirement for third level college and university matriculation. So, in order to be of some use to the voluntary education programme, I taught myself maths – from scratch. At first all I needed to be was one page ahead of the students. Now things are different. I’m pretty good with a protractor and a scientific calculator. Now I tutor Junior and Leaving Certificate students at Ordinary and Higher level, and – at this time of year – my phone never stops ringing. When I am bored I can now amuse myself with calculus, imaginary numbers and the equation of the line and the circle. Go me! One problem: Teenagers and maths don’t mix.

When we first noticed the phenomenon we named it the Christmas Month Effect. It’s one of them scientifically discernible effects like the Butterfly Effect or the Meitner–Hupfeld Effect (go on, look it up), and is broadly similar to what we also identified as the Easter Month Effect and the Paddy’s Week Effect. These effects relate to the loss of mathematical ability in the subject accrued as a result of continuous tuition during a period of riotous festivity. Over Christmas, the Easter holiday and Saint Patrick’s Day (a week of chaos in the Irish calendar) the gross sum of the student’s ability diminishes at an impressive rate. The probability of them being able to solve a simple linear equation after any of these periods tends to zero. This was my experience today. It isn’t even Paddy’s Day yet and the rot has set in. Okay, I will accept some of the responsibility (or all of it if you take the students’ side), as I did take a couple of weeks sick leave. Tools were downed and the effect took hold. We are all the way back to square one, and there are less than nine weeks until the exams.


One thought on “Probability Tends to Zero

  1. Pingback: Carnival of Mathematics #121 | Life Through A Mathematician's Eyes

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