Keepin' it real dumb: maths teaching saved by game-changing idea

This article from the BBC website caught my breakfast eye today. Professor Pratt (that's ENOUGH at the back. Any more and you'll see me at the end), a lecturer at the IoE has made the claim that maths is taught backwards- that, much like learning a language, users should learn by doing, before learning the rules.
"The problem with maths is that it is taught in way that is disconnected from the children.
"They don't see how it is relevant to their lives. It is presented only through abstract concepts, rather than in terms of experiences."
Which sounds jolly reasonable. I was ace at maths at school- a real test-busting kiss-ass. And to this day I still have no idea what differential calculus is actually for. The mysteries of SOH CAH TOA are as opaque and as inscrutable today as they ever were. Like SIRI, Apple's inexplicable attempt to corner the market in devices that say, 'Sorry: I don't understand,' to people, it makes sounds, but without comprehension.

The problem is, though....even when I was at school (Scotland, eighties) we used practical examples ALL THE TIME. If we weren't trying to work out the compound interest of bank loans, or the average speed required for a lorry to get from Brighton to Beirut, stopping off at the Westfield Wagamama's (and spending twenty five minutes there) before tea time, then we weren't doing much else.

But that would appear to be arithmetic. And even Plato observed that 'a slave knows that half of a circle is a semi-circle.' There is a basic level of geometry and arithmetic that speaks to us on a very emprirical level, demonstrably true by reference to experience.

'I vant you to vork out how many stressed teachers you can count.'
But beyond that there is a level, incrementally more dense, like the atmosphere of a gas giant, where we leave the realms of the easily demonstrable, and enter territories more a priori and strange. And this is partly where maths cannot, I think, be taught in such a sensually intuitive way. It becomes an abstract plane, where the ability to manipulate data becomes easily removed from understanding the language of that data. In fact, the rationalist philosophers thought that maths was the very ideal a priori knowledge, known prior to experience and using reason alone. Language never enters these kind of surreal levels of impenetrability, until you find yourself trying to work out what Mick Jagger or Eric Cantona is saying.

 'He added that the approach was not the same as old-fashioned mathematical "problems" which were often contrived and irrelevant to children's real life experiences.'

Oh really? So tell us what brave new world of practical, real world dilemmas will seize and engage the young mind....

 'For example, decisions on where to build a village bypass or how to advise someone on medical treatment have a mathematical element'

Sesame Street took it too far.
YOU HEARD ME RIGHT I WOULD NOT MAKE THIS SHIT UP. Learn maths by working out where to build the village bypass. Yeas, that's much better than working out compound interest on a mortgage. You can just IMAGINE their little HEARTS LIGHTING UP LIKE A PINBALL SCOREBOARD WHEN THEY HEAR THAT PIECE OF GHETTO.

But best of all- BEST of all, and I have been saving this until the end, is the idea that....

'He suggested that older pupils might be asked to approach questions with moral dimensions through mathematics.
For example, decisions on where to build a village bypass or how to advise someone on medical treatment have a mathematical element - but ethical considerations and social costs that are harder to quantify also play a part'
Can you hear that sound? That's the collective sigh as maths education finally breathes its last gasp, realising that intelligent people who are listened to consider that maths and ethics are somehow two subjects that should be taught together. I felt the same way when, as an RE/ Philosophy teacher, I used to be required to show how I was conveying numeracy to my children (thanks Numeracy strategy. Now F*ck Off), and I was left scratching my head and asking, 'Why?' before feebly mumbling something about tithes and zakah. I used to mock this idea, saying that I would justify my numeracy approach in Philosophy, the day they asked maths teachers to teach ethics and metaphysics.

And here, we are; the day has arrived, justifying the endlessly verifiable quote from George Orwell that there are some things so stupid, it takes an academic to say them.

And these are the people telling us how we should teach? Give me strength. This is an idea that no classroom teacher could have thought up, or would have felt comfortable even bringing up in a department meeting, let alone take to the governors. Yet another pot pourri of naivety, wishful thinking and irrelevance, that would be funny were it not for the fact that some of it gets through and hits us, like a blunderbuss filled with birdshit, right in our faces. And on the kids, which is worse.

*Ahem* Teacher Voice. Needed now, more than ever.


  1. So he wants less actual maths in maths? How bizarre. Personally I found (at school in the 90s) that application wasn't the problem it was lack of time for my teachers to explain to me *why* x did y. Prof Pratt seems to have little faith in the students to suss out applying what they learn themselves, has he never heard that teaching someone to make their own tools idiom? Silly man.

  2. So, I don't entirely disagree with him, but I feel that the problem lies in the early years and in primary school teaching of maths. We do need to teach children the relevance of maths and give them concrete experiences right from the start of their education. However, once they get to the point where they are questioning the relevance of maths, I feel it is often because they don't understand basic concepts and have no motivation to do so. I believe that many children would be able to go on and work with higher order abstract mathematical concepts if they felt a real confidence in their own basic skills. I am currently studying to be a primary school teacher in Australia, and the lack of confidence in basic maths of many of my colleagues is astounding. Our best maths teachers should be teaching the early years, but that's where the worst maths teachers end up (I'm generalising based on my experiences, don't shoot me) because they flap on about not being able to teach fractions. Our children are being failed from the first days they enter school. Are things better in the UK?

  3. How about using maths to work out just how much each of this man's pathetic ideas costs us (salary divided by pathetic ideas). Then find other things with the same cost (like a classroom or a hospital ward) and then ethically debate their relative values. QED

    1. How about working out the correlation between number of hours of teaching experience and influence on education policy?

      But seriously there is no child, no matter how disaffected from education, who wouldn't be engaged by the chance to locate a village bypass. I bet every supply teacher carries that lesson around for emergencies...

  4. Good old Michael Wilshaw said the other week that there wasn't enough music in music lessons, except for the ones where there was too much music.

    Now there's not enough maths in maths, except for the ones that have too much maths and need some ethics in there as well.

  5. Made me smile nostalgically. As an English teacher I was always baffled by the textbooks (and teachers) who came up with, "write a newspaper article on Macbeth" or "design a brochure advertising the Forest of Arden as a holiday venue."

    In my short sojourn back inside (the right term) the classroom recently, I got a year 7 class to write a letter to their favourite member of staff telling them what they liked about their lessons. I told them, if they did a god job, I would deliver them and maybe...they'd get a reply. When I asked the head of department where I could find some envelopes to put them in I was told, out of the question. Too expensive. (The office manager gave me as many as I needed the moment I asked him.) And guess what, not only did the kids write perfectly reasonable letters, they received a bundle of replies and about half a dozen staff thanked me personally... because it was so nice to feel appreciated!

    If you are going to set a child a task...Maths, English or anything helps to make it at least purposeful.

  6. It's all about trying to find a working strategy for the group of kids in front of you though, isn't it? You MIGHT just about feasibly happen to have a group who have an inspirational geography teacher teaching them about town layouts, in which case it COULD work if well-delivered.

    Calculate the expected percentage of classes currently studying in the UK that would enjoy the mathematics of calculating where to build a new bypass.
    (Hint - think small)


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