Tik Tok Maths: Can social media help children clock algebra?

We need all the allies we can get to make maths cool to young people, but consuming videos has little to do with learning

We need all the allies we can get to make maths cool to young people, but consuming videos has little to do with learning

5 Apr 2024, 5:00

Tik Tok? Maths? It reminds me of the gag by the comedian Peter Kay about garlic bread; ‘Garlic? Bread?’. 

Yet this week I’ve seen two stories (on my social media feeds, of course) about TikTok seemingly doing ‘good things’ for maths.

The first story was about TikTok adding a STEM feed to the home screen for all under-16 users in the UK. They say one-third of US under-16s engage with this every week since it was added in the States. 

The second story was about deep fake videos of celebrities teaching maths. The most popular, with over 10 million views, is of a rapper called Ice Spice (you learn something new every day) teaching about logarithms.

Over Easter, spurred by the publication of Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation, everybody has been talking about smartphones. My own social media has been full of people arguing about just how bad they are for children and what needs to be done about them.

Tik Tok argues that this is simply their latest step in creating educational content. #BookTok has already become what it calls “a literature phenomenon” while #LearnonTikTok “encourages our community to discover everything from local languages to ancient history.”

We are very used to hearing about the negative effects of social media, but could TikTok actually help teach children maths?

Our research at Axiom Maths shows that we ‘lose’ around 30,000 talented primary school pupils once they start secondary. A big factor is that maths is seen as uncool and high-attaining pupils are worried about being branded a ‘geek’. Too many young people feel they have to hide their love of maths in order to fit in.

Scrolling through unconnected 60-second video clips is not learning

We need all the allies we can get to help quash our society’s sense that liking maths is unusual, that pupils should be ashamed of the power of maths rather than proud of it. If a STEM feed on TikTok helps give young people the confidence to be themselves then that’s a good thing.

And it’s hard to argue that, if pupils are on TikTok anyway, seeing STEM videos is a bad thing. It’s clearly more wholesome than many alternative subject matters. And there will no doubt be examples of people who stumble upon things that spark a genuine interest.

But we shouldn’t kid ourselves that scrolling through unconnected 60-second video clips is learning.

Learning happens when we think hard about things. There is a big difference between watching something and learning it. To learn something we need to work with it, manipulate it, and practise applying it. We have to retrieve it, to come back to it, to put it into new contexts. It’s the mental workout that encodes the memory in our minds. Flicking through short video clips doesn’t come close to this.

Learning also happens as part of a curriculum. Picking up isolated facts might be good for a pub quiz or a bit of trivia, but it’s not the way to build an understanding of a subject or the world.

We face a big risk if pupils convince themselves that watching novelty maths clips is learning. The problem with smartphones is less the phones themselves and more the activities they displace – social media replacing socialising, exercising, reading. We can’t afford for #mathstok to replace actual maths.

So is STEM TikTok better than normal TikTok? Probably. But let’s not kid ourselves that it’s teaching children. This feels like simply ticking a box for TikTok. They might claim it’s educational content, but it’s not education.

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