Hannah's sweets: Most teenagers don't like maths, and questions like this only make us hate it more

Do we really need to steep maths papers in analogies and "real-life" situations? Can exam boards not just write a question and be done with it?

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The Independent Online

GCSE Maths: an indignity I can now admit, a year on, that I barely survived unscathed. So it was that I couldn’t help but feel a rush of relief to have evaded the fate of this year’s lambs to the slaughter: the poor chumps who sat an Edexcel GCSE Maths paper this week that was, to all accounts, plain weird.

A new Twitter hashtag was born yesterday: #EdexcelMaths. A cursory glance at it reveals that GCSE maths students have a bone to pick with a paper that included a difficult probability question concerning someone called Hannah and her bag of orange and yellow sweets. The question, which asked students to show that the probability that Hannah eats two orange sweets is one-third, was met with significant distress. On top of the hashtag, a petition was launched, which requests that “grade boundaries… be dropped and that the examiner be very generous when marking”.

The head of Edexcel was quick to respond to all the fuss, saying that “Our exam papers are designed by an experienced team of expert teachers... [who] make sure our papers… test the full range of students' abilities” – I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the students whose plight I understood well. It seemed to me that they’d also raised a serious question: do we really need to steep maths papers in analogies and "real-life" situations? Can exam boards not just write a question and be done with it?

Having spent many moments of my life wasting time in maths classes, I can say with some authority that there’s always been some serious feeling about the various oddities of GCSE papers. Often, the class philosopher will be the first to raise objections. “Ten men are digging a hole? Why are they digging a hole? What’s the hole for?”. On other occasions, someone will protest the exam board's unjust depictions of teens and their lifestyles – “I have never got together with my friends to play cards, let alone paused the game to work out a probability question.”

But most importantly, why do examiners think students won’t be able to handle questions unless they’re put into a “real-life” situation? I understand that the older generations have a tendency to see us young things as rather fragile. In recent years, there have even been numerous outcries from politicians about how "easy "exams are these days – presumably because us young people can’t handle anything harder. However, I don't think we need everything explained to us in a tone that reminds me of the Janet and John books. I’ve torn my hair out in frustration countless times looking at a maths paper. But not once did I do this because a speed-distance-time question wasn’t cloaked in a cushy tale about Susan walking up a hill to her friend’s house.

More importantly, I have to ask: what bearing on “real-life” do these questions have, anyway? I hate to cast aspersions on the people writing these exams, but I’m not entirely sure they have a strong understanding of the teenage mind. One question in a November 2013 Edexcel paper tells us about “Jack and Graham”, who “recorded the time, in minutes, they each spent messaging on Thursday, on Friday, on Saturday, and on Sunday last week.” I wouldn't want to criticise these two total lads, but it doesn’t seem like the behaviour of two well-balanced teenagers to me. Isn’t this a bit obsessive? Are these boys okay?

This is a plea to our country's maths examiners. It’s time to leave the storytelling to the English teachers and allow a Maths question to be a Maths question. Kids are never going to enjoy an exam, and no question is ever going to be fun.