How a singing maths teacher won hearts and minds at Famelab 2016

Tuesday 26th April 2016

Famelab 2016 winner Kyle Evans explains the inspiration behind his folk-math style which won him top spot at the Oxford regional heats and the national finals. Having toured the UK in a folk band for the last ten years Kyle recently had his unexpected big break on BBC Radio 4 as a solo artist, performing his Oxford Regional Final winning piece on logarithmic love for the nation!

It’s been my absolute pleasure to compete in Oxford’s Famelab heats this year, but I have a confession to make – I haven’t always enjoyed talking maths.  I’ve been a teacher for nearly ten years, but when I started I wasn’t passionate about it at all.  It didn’t stimulate me intellectually and I was putting a lot more time and effort into music on the side – writing and playing in various touring bands.  I was probably invested in my students’ enjoyment and engagement to the minimum possible level.  That might sound bad in hindsight but ‘good enough’ is often good enough.

In the Winter of my first year teaching I remember a CD-R was being passed around the staffroom table (yes, this was before YouTube) of Marcus du Sautoy’s Christmas lectures.  It was a lightning rod to me: this is how interesting and engaging lessons should be.  I watched all of the episodes at home and prepared the best one for my year 10 class.  We sat and watched it together on the last day of term, and as the students were leaving, one stopped at my desk and, with a spectacular lack of tact, asked: “Sir, why can’t your lessons be that interesting?”

Being 22 at the time, and with the fevered ego one might expect of a man of such an age, my immediate reaction was to counter with spite: “Why don’t you try if it looks so easy?”  But I managed to compose myself and do two things instead: write the student’s exact quote on a post-it, and quietly promise the student that I’d try.

“I still own that post-it note, and I have used it as my motivation ever since.”

I still own that post-it note, and I have used it as my motivation ever since.  Every time I’m in front of students I try to ask myself two simple questions: What are the students thinking about, and where’s the hook?  So whether I’m using conditional probability to pick apart shoddy statistics in the media, or using obscure ‘60s pop music to teach logarithmic curves, I always try to add a hook that students might not expect.

I’ve also become a father recently, which has been an indescribable joy but does force a reassessment of one’s priorities.  I’ve always been one to burn the candle at both ends, so my solution has been simple – combine the maths and music!  I’ve been getting involved in science communication and there’s been a surprisingly strong response for my mathematical folk songs. Yes, really.

I hope to be out spreading the joy of x with my guitar in the near future – please do stop and say hi. I don’t know if I’ll ever be as good as that student might have hoped, but as long as I have the post-it I’ll know what my target is.

Twitter @kyledevans

Kyle teaches maths at Barton Peveril college in Eastleigh and you can hear his music at kyledevans.bandcamp.com

Oxford Times article

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