"Let's Talk Fractals, Mum!"

22/09/2016 13:27 | Updated 22 September 2017

When my youngest child G was in primary school, the walls outside her classroom were display boards for pupils' artwork. She wasn't academic at that time (being a late reader), but with child-like enthusiasm and exuberance, she used to put a lot of work into art.

Yet somehow, her creations never quite made the grade compared to her peers'. A few pupils in her class were producing such amazing work that G's efforts looked as if they had been done blindfolded and upside down, though G consistently scored higher than these pupils in classroom-based tests and exams.


My hunch was proven when she was in Year Six. Her homework was to make a volcano. She built a very realistic-looking one out of cardboard cartons filched from coffee shops, which she soaked and moulded into a volcano before spending hours painting it. It took her hours! Proudly, she had trotted off to school with her creation.

But she was somewhat deflated when she saw her classmates' productions: fibre glass, LED, computer-printed labels, and very professional-looking. It was very obvious that these were the work of adults. I was annoyed. I wanted to complain to the school about the pervasive issue of parents and tuition teachers doing their children's homework, but G's father had wisely told me, "It is not important, because there will come a time when ALL kids will be graded according to their own abilities."

Six years later, he is proven right. G is now in the first year of her International Baccalaureate programme. One of the questions under the Theory Of Knowledge box for Mathematics was, 'How many times does something have to be repeated before it becomes a pattern?'

The physicist in me, with the benefit of three years of postgraduate studies at Oxford, jumped in enthusiastically. Non-Euclidean vs Euclidean shapes! Supersymmetry in Theoretical Physics! Fibonacci's Sequence!

I would gladly answer that question for her, and do a good job, too.

But my child, too used to doing her own homework, grinned at me in challenge. "Let's talk fractals, Mum!"

And at that moment, I realised, wow, this sixteen-year-old can think very well for herself, so totally independent of me, and if truth must be known, I am learning from her.


Photograph and article on fractals from New Scientist can be found by clicking this link.

(Note: Special thanks to our friend Gary Macaulay, who is an inspired maths teacher, for the afternoons messing around with G folding tetrahexaflaxagons instead of sitting at the table drilling in past papers or teaching her how to pass exams with 100%.)

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