Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Bringing Marcus du Sautoy into your classroom

I've had a wonderful helper in my classroom during 2011 - although he's totally unaware of it. Whenever I needed a high quality video to explain or demonstrate concepts, or just wanted an entertaining break that was still directly relevant to the mathematics curriculum, it was time to bring Marcus du Sautoy's BBC program "The Code" into my class.  My students absolutely love the program. Without fail, even if I had a class that wasn't in the mood for a maths video, if I could get to them to watch just a few minutes (see teacher tips below), they were hooked.

So why would you want to bring Marcus into your classroom? Apart from his incredible enthusiasm (which students respond to well), he shows mathematical ideas in action, in the real world, in surprising and engaging ways.

Original image from The Code Episode 3 (c) BBC with annotations.
No copyright infringment intended.

Some of the segments show things we should already be aware of as mathematics teachers, but with his (and the BBC's resources) we can actually see them. Other things are so different and quirky you marvel at de Sautoy's ingenuity and inspiration to present the material this way. For teachers interested in making links between mathematics and science, as well as mathematics and critical thinking, The Code has an underlying message of rich and deep significance which at least some of your students will respond to.

Here are some of my favorite sequences:
  • Marcus goes to the fish market, asks a very solid fisherman about his day's catch, then pulls out his iPhone to do some calculations and predicts the size of the biggest catch the fisherman ever made. "We call them doormats!" the fisherman beams back. And all with the purpose of showing the number π appears in places not necessarily related to circles!
  • The amazing expert bubble blower (my students were thrilled there was such a profession!) who makes a dodecahedron out of bubbles - no kidding!
  • An explanation of how Jackson Pollock's art links to fractals. It turns out my students were already making Pollock style pictures in art class, so I'm planning a joint lesson with our art teachers next year to combine the art and the maths.
  • Marcus puts his life at risk sitting in the path of a 30kg metal ball. Now there is faith in the accuracy of your mathematics!
  • Marcus debunks the myth of the suicidal lemmings. Someone at Disney Studios has some explaining to do!
and there are many more wonders to enjoy.

One challenge with using a program like The Code in a classroom is that it's three hours long - and I'm really not comfortable with students sitting in class passively watching even one full episode at a stretch (in normal circumstances). It's not very good pedagogy and we really don't have the time - the curriculum and teaching program waits for no-one (sadly).  So my approach was to show ten or fifteen minutes segments at appropriate times in the teaching sequence.

The next challenge is to remember which sequences and topics are covered by The Code, and where they appear in the three episodes. During the holiday break I've finally kept a promise to myself:  to catalogue, by syllabus topic (loosely) every segment in The Code, with time sequences so I can quickly get the pieces that I want.  If like me you're a fan of The Code, you might like to download this analysis and fit it into your planning documents.
The Code - Content Analysis
Teaching Tips
  • Some classes (especially those who don't like mathematics) will really resist watching a maths video. Probably because they've been forced to watch some hideous videos in the past. For these classes, I make a promise at the start : "Let's watch the first five minutes - if you hate it after that, I'll turn it off". I've never had students turn down watching more of The Code. On the contrary - I have a hard time stoppping the video before the next segment starts - they are hungry for more. Usually I relent for at least one more segment (if I see it's a genuine interest and not a way to avoid work!).
  • Does "end of the year" silliness happen at your school after reports are done and the official program is over? Where students end up watching "The Lion King" and "Kung Fu Panda"? No need to put up with that in your class - time to watch a whole episode of The Code. If they have only seen segments, they will enjoy seeing the whole picture. If not, go for it!
Getting The Code
  • A Region 2 (UK) DVD is available from the BBC and Amazon UK.
    Excellent news : Region 4 DVD coming to Australia Feb 2012 (thank you SBS!)
  • Some extracts are available on BBC You Tube site.
  • BBC Online appears to allow UK based browsers access to the program online.  When I visit, I get a "Not available in your area" message . Hear the sound of my teeth gnashing.
If you like using maths documentarys in class, consider also Bronowski's Ascent of Man. I've written a content analysis of his Episode 5: Music of the Sphere in an earlier post.


  1. re: Story of Maths,

    If your school uses Clickview, you may be able to get access to it via, clickview exchange.

    That is how I got it for my school. Unfortunately, the code does not appear there. Was it aired in Oz on free to air?

  2. It was on cable - BBC Knowledge showed it, along with The Story of Maths.

  3. I saw Marcus du Sautoy on the ABC (The Story of Maths, I think)and I was gob smacked at how well his program was put together. I tried to download your doc The Code - Content Analysis but had no luck. I just ended up going round in circles between scribd and facebook. Could you possibly email me a copy. My address is robert.mcgregor12@det.nsw.edu.au

    Just to clarify - where you able to get a copy of The Code (the whole series) on DVD in Australia?