I’ve been thinking recently about the ‘state’ of maths education in the UK. I’ve been thinking about the general disdain for maths that often stems from parents, which in turn originates in the teaching they experienced, and no doubt their parents before them, ad infinitum. I decided to view it from a different perspective for a change. Sadly the conclusions I came up with were not great. Consider this an executive summary:
1. Maths is not special.
2. Maths is not maths at all.
If we overcome these two minor points, then we’ll all be fine. What’s that? They’re not minor? I suppose you’re right. Ho hum.
1. Maths is not special.
Let me be clear. Mathematics is special to me. I love it, and this blog is a kind of ‘duh’ testament to that. But should it be considered in such high regard (perhaps the wrong words) at school? Should it be a ‘core’ subject? Should there even be core subjects? Why are schools judged on it? Why do universities and employers supposedly value it more than other subjects?If you are sitting there with a smug grin on your face whispering ‘oh but you neeeeed maths. Maths is everywhere. Maths is in everything”. Slap your face. Maths is not everywhere. You don’t NEED it. You need it no more than you need English, or Geography, or Music. In fact, I’d say you need English more than maths. I need to be able to read and write far more than I need to be able to work numerically (occupation aside). I know English (the subject) isn’t quite so simple as ‘learning to read and write’, but I’m pretty sure those two things primarily fall under their remit.
Don’t start telling me I need it to do my shopping either. No I don’t. Amazon adds everything up for me just fine, and the credit card company and my bank do a pretty good job of subtracting everything for me. Do I need *basic* numeracy? I’ll say yes, although with a little hesitancy again over the ‘need’ part, unless we’re talking exclusively about number operations. I suspect those who got a D or lower in GCSE are not all dying in a ditch somewhere. But is basic numeracy what we teach? Really? I’m pretty sure 99% of what I teach is stuff I know students will never use again, and has absolutely no merit in society – even for those who go on to maths based careers… maths teachers aside perhaps.
“Oh but what if you’re at a restaurant, with ten people, and you need to work out…”
Come now. Let’s not play this game. There’s an app for that… and everything else these days. Granted someone has to MAKE the app, and for that they need to know some pretty good maths, but someone has to write a book, and they need to be proficient in English, and someone else has to play in the Premier League, and they need to be pretty good at football… do you see??
The reasons behind maths being compulsory, and therefore eventually evolving into a ‘judged’ subject are historic, boring, and frankly redundant. I’m sure you could look them up. The sad fact is though, that they’re not REALLY redundant, because we’re obliged to carry on with this silly charade as long as society refuses to break the mould. And it won’t. So we’re stuck in this annoying loop.
Isn’t it obvious that it’s this very ‘necessity’ to get a good grade in maths, and to even DO ‘maths’ that is compounding all of our issues? Covering a meaningless and fragmented curriculum, forcing revision classes for countless disinterested students, employing anything with a pulse to teach maths because there are no maths teachers, because no-one wants to be a maths teacher because they hated maths and everyone hates maths and the pressures that come with maths teaching are awful and and and. Sorry I forgot to write proper sentences. How important English is!
It probably sounds like I’m trying to fix “the problem” by just getting rid of all the students. Not quite. I just want people to like real maths, and appreciate real maths. Oh, that’s the other thing. The thing we’re teaching isn’t real maths at all.
2. Maths is not maths at all.
School maths is not proper maths. Mathematics is about playing about with things, finding out obscure patterns and saying “oooh that’s cool… and what if…”. Maths is about looking for relationships, or inventing relationships and seeing if they hold. Maths is about probing for answers to problems that don’t show you where to go or what to use. Maths has a history, a story, a path, a journey and a whole host of mysteries. Those things aren’t taught. Not by many, and certainly not often. Why? Don’t blame the teachers, blame the curriculum. Blame the entire structure of ‘maths’ at school. Blame ratios, blame cosec, blame improper fractions, blame histograms. Do those things seem disjointed? That’s because THEY ARE DISJOINTED. Throw a dart at those dull, dull pages and blame that. I don’t think many maths teachers even know what maths is. To most of us, it’s whatever is in those text books. What a pity. Wouldn’t it be nice to teach core skills as and when they are needed, or when a tool set has run its course, and we need to find a new tool? Imagine if we could just play around with numbers and patterns and problems for a while, see where it takes us. Of course I’m living a fantasy here. These ideas are perhaps just plain ridiculous, and no doubt you could give me a hundred reasons as to why they wouldn’t work. But what we’re doing now doesn’t really work does it? Maybe more people would enjoy maths if they saw it for what it really is – an art. A plaything. A complex puzzle waiting for you to pick a section and start solving it.
Instead it’s more often than not a whole bunch of formulae and algorithms with no meaning attached, forced down people’s throats until they choke.