A response to ‘secret teacher’

I sighed, once again, when I opened my laptop this morning and found this new article from ‘secret teacher’ (a blog from various teachers wanting to bemoan the state of UK education each week under a veil of anonymity). This week it’s about how maths is useless, and how students will never use it, and how mean it is to put them through such awful stress and… and Pythagoras?! Who needs that, right? Who’s with me! (*cheers from the masses*).

Well, here’s the thing:

I’ll never use this in my life

Probably correct. And by pretending otherwise you’re being a fool. Any maths teacher who is still relying on the “oh but you might need algebra when you’re in the supermarket… and if you need to rearrange your furniture you could use Pythagoras” is completely missing the point of mathematics, and is completely confusing being numerate (which is, let’s be honest, quite important and you probably rely on numeracy skills every day)  with being a mathematician. Whilst the article points out numeracy is important, the author doesn’t quite make the connection that mathematics isn’t numeracy and isn’t intended to be. Numeracy is a pre-requisite, like having a p.e. kit to do p.e.

Furthermore, you’re convincing no-one with these terrible examples of ‘real maths’, because what you’re saying simply isn’t true and you know it. It’ll only make people think the subject is even more useless than before, because you can’t convince them otherwise.

This is not a unique argument for mathematics. Far, far from it. Have I ever needed to talk about tectonic plates in my life? Noop. Have I ever needed to discuss the history of castles or the victorians since I was 14? Hmm, also… no. Have I ever discussed the composition of language in a critical essay about Shakespeare in the last 20 years? Yes! All the time. No wait, I mean no. No I haven’t. I could go on, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t used almost all the explicit facts I learned at school since I left, apart from the specific things that apply to the job I pursued, and the key skills underlying the things I studied. Do I feel angry about learning the other things? No. Why? Well, ask yourself what the alternative is.

I need to learn things that are relevant

Don’t you see how problematic that is? Define relevant. Now get the person sat next to you (come on, let’s have a group activity! They work well) to define it in their terms. Do you get the same answer? Probably not. Hmm, let’s fix this and send each of you into two different classes so that you can get your bespoke curriculum taught to you individually. Oh there’s 30 of you. M’kay, we’ll just get some more teachers in. Oh you want to change your future career now, 4 years into your bespoke curriculum? Oh dear, we didn’t plan for that. The curriculum is intended to be broad. It is intended to accomodate a little bit of everyone’s interests, and keep the doors open. It isn’t intended to be a tick-list of everyday skills we need. The curriculum carries more cultural weight than that. Tom Bennett explains the crux of the argument very clearly:

“we teach because we are helping children to inherit their intellectual heritage, the pearls and rubies of science, art, the humanities.”

And yes, maths is very relevant to some careers

Not your career? No problem. Move along, but don’t forget to say thankyou to your teachers and school for enabling you to decide upon a career path, rather than carve one or two options out for you from the age of eleven.

Why always me?

Every time this debate rises up from the ashes like a sulky teenage phoenix, it inevitably involves mathematics rather than any other subject. Mathematics is difficult and abstract, so it’s great fun to poke it with a stick. Funnily enough, I find the students who struggle with maths to be the ones who declare it as useless and pointless. Shocker. Art teachers find the students who can’t draw well don’t like their subject either. PE teachers find the students who don’t exercise dislike their subject too. Mathematics is at the front of the bashing line because it’s hard, and sadly it’s often taught procedurally, without allowing time to disect why things work to make sense of it all (as Ofsted and Nick Gibb are often so keen to remind us).

This leads onto the points made in the Guardian article that are actually interesting and worth pursuing, but get lost in the stupid:

Mathematics is compulsory

Does it need to be? If we take away politics, and assume everyone is numerate by 11 or 12, do we need everyone to study it? Why? Why are certain subjects compulsory and others not? That’s an interesting debate to be had.

Mathematics results are “important”

More so than any other subject bar English. Why is that? How has that come about and what would the implications be if the setup was different? That’s an interesting debate to be had.

Mathematics is swamping the curriculum

With increased emphasis on maths, it is inevitably taking up more curriculum time at the expense of other subjects. There’s an interesting debate to be had there too.

I’m going to go and eat some toast now.

If a student asks you “what’s the point in studying maths?”, don’t patronise them with nonsense about supermarkets and taxes. Have a real discussion about it if you want, but it boils down to this: “I’m making you smarter”.

21 thoughts on “A response to ‘secret teacher’

  1. For me, this blog could be pasted on every classroom wall and appear in the appendices of every departmental handbook in order to remind readers of what mathematics essentially is and what it certainly is not. So many important points raised, so I shall not bore anybody by repeating them. I agree also with the business of anonymity; about who is hiding behind it and what their agenda is.

  2. I agree with everything you say here but would add one more point. The ‘process’ of learning Mathematics IS a transferrable skill. Being a logical thinker, using critical reasoning, using deduction, formulating proof, breaking complex ideas down into smaller parts to solve them, working with abstract concepts,…….

    The actual mathematics may not be ‘relevant’ to every student, but surely the studying of mathematics IS!

    • I’ll add to this point because it is sort of that this article is getting at. Ordinarily cognitive scientists have found that transference is hard and in some cases impossible to teach, and the reason appears to be that one does not have advanced ability in a vacuum — domain knowledge is essential. Thus a person with advanced skills in chess cannot transfer those skills (that is not automatically) to Banking or lumberjacking. The skill is attached to the knowledge the person has about chess. Now obviously there is some transference. A person who walks versus one who never did for some reason certainly has an easier time riding a bike not just because they have better developed muscles, but because certain aspects of coordination and balance can be “retooled” for that purpose. Numerous examples of good artists who have become quadriplegics and learned to transfer that skill to a brush held in their teeth. But in these cases generally the domain knowledge is there and one is really talking about rewiring brain-body interactions. Yet one must admit that some transference of cognitive skills happens. It just ain’t easy to do through direct education, and it is fool’s errand to try to teach skills as if they were not dependent on domain knowledge.

      Mathematics is this interesting exception to the rule, and the reason is in the abstraction. Because math in its pure form is abstract, it immediately transfers to numerous settings in a way unlike any other subject. A person who learns circle geometry, spheres and trigonometry understands some things about a ball or round object they encounter. Via trigonometry they understand sound waves and other wave and periodic phenomena. They grasp facts about rotational dynamics that are not immediately obvious to the intuition. That knowledge transfers almost effortlessly … because of the abstraction intrinsic in the subject. Because that’s what math *is*.

      Or as I have often put it, a little more briefly …

      5+5=10 has an infinite number of uses.

      But $5+$5 = $10 is a piece of accounting trivia.

  3. I’ve been a maths teacher for 22 years, so obviously I love the subject and I love teaching it.

    BUT the mathematics curriculum we force young people to follow is almost calculated (geddit?!) to make them hate the subject. It certainly makes me hate it.

    It’s not difficult to interest kids in maths. Kids love puzzles and tricks. It’s easy to make it fun. But when you force everyone to learn trigonometry you lose the argument. It’s not fun. No-one uses it in real life. Very few people really understand what’s going on. Many teachers resort to teaching tricks to get kids through the exam; at this point everyone knows that what they’re doing is pointless. And boring.

    Maths teachers lost the argument years ago. No-one’s buying it. Unless they change what they teach, they will live the rest of their lives being told, “oh, I hated maths when I was at school.”

  4. Another aspect in support of this is that the maths curriculum is giving pupils the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to learn at a particular level. I worked in Engineering for 18 years before I came into teaching, and I used a small fraction of what I had learned at school or indeed University in my job. What I did use was then taken to a much deeper depth and complexity. Employers are generally not looking for people to come out of school/ uni knowing how to do a job, they are looking for people who can learn how to do the job, and the level of qualification they are looking for reflects the foundation information which they want to build upon, and they level they are looking for their employees to learn at.

  5. I’m torn on this one. I agree with everything said above, studying maths develops thinking, problem solving and a whole host of other important and transferable skills.

    But on the other hand, how fair is it to keep making students resit the qualification over and over due to not being able to grasp topics like trigonometry? Sometimes having these topics rammed down their throats at the expense of becoming numerate and spending time developing the basics… It’s important that they’ve been exposed to these concepts and had chance to grapple with them but…

    • I think your dilema is based around the more interesting debate regarding the *importance* of maths, rather than its relevance. I’m not convinced it should be held in such high regard at the expense of other subjects, nor should it necessarily be such a pivotal qualification to further a students’ career. However, I can’t honestly see it changing any time soon. Most nations follow the same emphasis.

  6. I am entirely “with” your response but can see where the issue comes from; along with other core subjects we do give some very important “real world” skills so I can understand how people want to judge us by that alone.
    Throwing another couple of points in:
    1. Why not give us two GCSEs? Science have up to three and English have two; we could have a “numeracy” one that really gave employers what they bleat about and a “maths” one for the “joy of it” (much like Eng Lang and Lit)
    2. Given this debate is out there… why the govt obsession with “post 16 maths for all”? If we haven’t taught them what they need after 12 years in the system then what has been going on? (Disclaimer: I have taught IB Maths Studies but – bar some stats – you are largely pushing the unnecessary at the unwilling)
    BTW Many thanks for running the blog/problems – keeps my Y10s on their toes!

    • Thanks for the comment. I think the post-16 maths is entirely to keep up with European “competitors” and try and increase uptake of stem at university level. As always, a flawed approach with limited footing in reality (i.e. There are no teachers and a lot of disaffected maths haters!)

  7. Pingback: Love teaching, love maths, love twitter. – missblilley

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  9. I have spent over ten years teaching numeracy and mathematics in FE colleges. The situation you identified in your blog had parallels in FE, where the attainment of ‘ grade D ‘ is no guarantee of a student having a sound grasp of the numeracy skills or techniques needed for them to achieve the govt target minimum grade of ‘C’. (This is especially the case where a student has been entered for the higher paper in hope rather than expectation of attaining the targeted C)

    In FE colleges, those students with a ‘D’ will automatically be enrolled to retake GCSE and those who haven’t, functional skills numeracy. The Government’s expectation that FE colleges will be able get these GCSE students to attain an acceptable C or above, or, equivalent, within the year fails to recognise that we too often have to reteach, not just revise, the numeracy skills our students should already have in place, while teaching the topics they need to improve their GCSE grade. Statistics suggest that this improved grade does not often materialise.

    Working towards taking the foundation paper and concentrating on teaching those missing numeracy skills is the obvious approach, but runs up against resistance from the student who has been told that it is easier to ‘pass’ the higher paper and some teachers who are willing to game the system.

    But I still wouldn’t teach anything else.


    • Hi Phil – just to say I agree 100% with what you have written here. I too dislike (to put it mildly) the anonymity ‘secret’ teacher rubbish and as a Guardian reader am appalled that they stoop so low. I am a constant detractor from the system of examinations, especially the kinds of pathetic, pseudo-contextual questions which demean the beautiful discipline of mathematics. Just how the underlying epistemology of mathematics (problem solving, conjecturing, generalising, proof) can be assessed in timed examinations is oxymoronic (certainly moronic!)

  10. Pingback: Sorry we keep lying to you… | Solve My Maths

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