Oct 17, 2012
Spent a hugely enjoyable day today in Cardiff in the company of Learning Pool and their customers. I’ve got a lot of time for the way this bunch have built their business, and – for once a word neither hijacked nor misplaced – their community.
As with the event I went to in London a fortnight ago, any suggestion of post-lunch torpor was shattered by the charismatic Donald Clark, something of an Antichrist of E-Learning. (I trust he’d enjoy that description. He’ll no doubt let me know if not).
Donald likes to shake it up a bit, and did some pretty efficient demolition of many of the cargo cult behaviours of learning and development. He’s not an easy listen for some of the professionals in this field, which is probably why he makes such an excellent choice as a speaker.
But then… he turned his beady eye to content.
“How many of you,” he boomed, “…can remember the formula for solving a quadratic equation?”
Silence. (I’ll come back to that in a moment.)
I couldn’t hold back, and did a sort of ten-year-old’s squeak and arm-raise from the very back of the room.
“One. Right.” Point proven, clearly. “There’s no value in all these things we ‘learn’. You’re never going to need that formula. You don’t remember it.”
And so, dear blog-clicker, I was prompted to write these few words in defence of this humble equation.
Along with Pythagoras on triangles, Newton on force, and a couple of (slightly rusty if I’m honest) ones about speed and velocity, it’s pretty much the only tone poem featuring a, b, x, y and their friends that I can still effortlessly recall.
(Once upon a time I could reel off the Kutta-Joukowski equation and other fancy rhythms. Sadly most of those are now long, long gone.)
And here it is:
Do I actually use it? Well, yes, I have done. Quite recently, in fact. I wanted to remind myself of the precise derivation of the golden ratio, in some thinking I was doing around graphic composition. Constructing the equation is ridiculously easy, but solving it is a little less obvious.
To be able to achieve this solution of an equation of a higher order (where one of the terms is multiplied by itself), using this very simple bit of maths, was in itself very pleasing.
And more than just giving me the solution, it also satisfied me to know that more basic algebra wasn’t going to do the job – that it had to be this particular formula in order to unlock the secret.
The quadratic equation also did something else for me when I first met it; something that persists today. It broadened my mind to the idea that a problem could have more than one solution. And beyond this, to the corollary that mathematical processes might be asymmetric. Or even irreversible. That really helped when I later came across public key cryptography.
Thank you for all that too, little equation.
I suppose, to generalise even further, that even if I had never used it again, it had done a job in my mind. Planted a seed. Given a concrete foundation to the idea that problems can be solved with tools. Find the right tool, and great power can be yours.
So, all in all, I was quite fond of it.
And yet, in this room of prosperous professionals, not one other person was prepared to admit they remembered it.
Actually, two other people did subsequently come out to me in the corridor, saying they did know, but they didn’t really want to say so in front of everyone.
And that, dear reader, is a problem for me.
To begin, as our speaker did, by rubbishing “traditional things that are taught” sets us on a precarious slope. It’s the same slope that excludes the nerd, that silences the swot, that rewards mediocrity, the low-brow and the trivial.
Do too much of that and you’ll engender a fear of the complex and an avoidance of more far-reaching lessons of abstraction, extrapolation and generalisation. You really don’t want to do that.
I’m not going to go all Gove about this, but, well, if you’ve read this far, you know what I mean.
So go to bed tonight chanting softly, x equals minus b plus or minus the square root of b squared…