Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Thoughts on maths education

Today sees the publication of the latest Pisa report about maths, science and reading education in OECD countries. Now, I'm not an educationalist, so I'm not going to pontificate about teaching methods or best practice - there but there are two main points that won't be made in the debate over this report that won't be that I think are worth mentioning.

The first is that the Education Secretary, who is still Michael Gove for some reason, is likely to say that these results are likely to be a reflection on the previous government's education policies. He'll say that his ideas will only be judged after a decade or so of operation. Now therein lies the problem.
Even if you are one of the few that think Gove's policies are good for the youth of today, they won't get a decade. No system ever has - at least not in my lifetime. No single cohort goes through their whole school life under a single system, so no judgement can ever be made on anyone's education policies.
Over the last 30 years, we've only had two changes of government, so it's not even that under an 18-year Conservative regime we had a single system, nor in the 13 Labour years that followed. Each minister with the education brief changes things and the member responsible changes every couple of years or so. No system is ever given a chance to work so no single set of exam results can ever be taken to justify or blame anyone for anything.

The big issue with maths teaching and, more importantly, maths learning in this country is cultural. It remains acceptable to laugh and say "oh I'm terrible with numbers, me" when failing to perform a simple addition or subtraction. This ought to be unacceptable. Innumeracy should be on a par with illiteracy. Instead, it is normal. Stupidity, especially when it comes to numbers, seems almost to be a source of pride. It's not enough to say how terrible you are with numbers and brush it off as just one of those things you can't do, like juggling or snooker. If you want to juggle or play snooker, what do you do? Learn the techniques and practise a lot. So why not maths?
Until the attitude changes - until children aren't brought up by people who revel in their innumeracy - maths results aren't likely to change greatly. Until we, as a society, stop paying too much heed to the chronically stupid - and I'm thinking here of recent snippets of 'I'm slightly famous, pay me to shove a kangaroo's bollock in my gob' I've accidentally seen - then we're always going to be on the back foot.