Our government seems to believe that Carol Vorderman’s experience as a Countdown presenter means she knows what’s wrong with maths in this country, and what to do about it.
It always makes me laugh when I see articles like this one http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-17224600 where quotes from Carol are juxtaposed with proposals to transform maths teaching by ” attracting the best maths graduates into the profession”. Er… does not compute! Carol herself has, to the best of my knowledge, a 3rd class degree in Engineering (not maths). So the expert on our mathematical deficiencies would, on two counts, not be a suitable recruit into teaching, should she decide to turn her talents that way??!!?? As I’ve said in an earlier post, I personally certainly don’t think qualifications are the be-all and end-all of being a decent teacher. I wouldn’t refuse to consider Ms Vorderman (or someone else with her qualifications) for a job just on those grounds. But doesn’t the inconsistency here bother anyone?
I don’t know what the solution is to people at large being so weak on numeracy skills – wish I did. But I certainly don’t think the problem is solely (or even mainly) with the maths curriculum. Plenty more people leave school with adequate numeracy skills than actually display them when asked to in later life. And I suspect that if push came to shove, a lot of the people who “can’t” do a calculation could probably make some sort of attempt at it, but have a conditioned reflex to say they can’t do it. This may be lack of confidence, or fear of getting it wrong – or it could be simple idleness, further promoted by the fact it’s socially acceptable, as CV points out, to say you’re rubbish at maths.
I suspect one problem is that kids seem to arrive at secondary school seeing maths as about getting an “answer”, and the process of getting there as less important. One of the most important factors in mathematical success is resilience – having the tenacity and determination to persist with tough problems, and not be discouraged by not getting there the first time. Trying ideas out is important too – risk-taking. And while we want to build kids’ confidence, having no experience of getting things wrong or “failing” isn’t the way to do that – if your whole mathematical self-esteem is based on those endless lines of ticks in the exercise book, then the minute you haven’t got the answer, the whole edifice crumbles. But it’s uphill work to get them to see that an incorrect answer, or not knowing how to get an answer, isn’t the stage at which you give up, but the stage at which you really start to learn.
I tend to feel that the requirements for 3 part lessons, pace, meeting targets etc rather contribute to this problem. Targets can mean kids are encouraged to see topics as something to be achieved and “ticked off”, rather than as part of a continued learning process. Those lesson structures often encourage quick responses, focused on the answer, rather than extended deeper thought. And a requirement for all learners to make measurable progress in a lesson may mean that the teacher cannot present them with a really challenging problem that needs a longer-term approach.
So will the “root and branch review” they’re planning for maths teaching take any of that into account? I won’t hold my breath…