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'Being bad at maths shouldn't be a badge of honour'

Do we have a generation that is weak in mathematics, or is society's attitude to the subject to blame, asks Roshan Doug

Why times tables checks and rote learning aren't the answer to pupils getting top results

Do we have a generation that is weak in mathematics, or is society's attitude to the subject to blame, asks Roshan Doug

Not being able to read or write is socially and culturally unacceptable. Yet, admitting one struggles with mathematics is – in this country at least – almost a badge of honour. I’ve been to dinner parties where people laugh it off as if they’re being cool not being able to recite the seven times table.

But then, even some universities accept students on many degree courses without GCSE maths.

The fact of the matter is that our pupils find it difficult to engage with numbers, equations and formulas. Many don’t see the relevance of maths in the real world. How often have maths teachers heard their pupils saying: "Why do I need this stuff about converting ratios and percentages?" or "What’s the point of trigonometry coz I’m going to do music/art at uni?"

A couple of years ago I was in an education conference in Delhi when I was asked why British pupils have such a hang up about arithmetic. 

I felt a bit embarrassed because India – like China – has a strong mathematics tradition second to none. Their pupils conceptualise and consider it a higher skill to use lateral thinking. Academia is nothing if one doesn’t have a firm grounding in arithmetic and mental agility. This is because upon leaving school, young people cannot get a decent job without a high standard of competency in mathematics. They see mathematics as a tool for increasing one’s thinking power.

Young minds

So for Indians, it’s almost impossible to envisage intelligent young minds who don’t have a proficiency in mathematics – it’s a contradiction in terms. Anyone without a decent competency in maths is almost considered uneducated or illiterate. For own our pupils, however, mathematics is just a set of rather pointless rules for manipulating and applying equations and symbols for abstract problems that have no correlation with the real world.

The 2016 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked Britain in the 27th position for maths, below many Far Eastern countries like Taiwan, Singapore and Japan. And yet we spend more per pupil than any other western European democracy. How can this be? Why don’t our pupils’ results reflect our expenditure?

Do we merely have a generation that is weak in mathematics – because they’ve inherited this from their parents – or is it to do with our approach to the subject and education in general?

What are we doing wrong?

Firstly, there is very little research correlating genetics with academic ability or lack thereof. So we can only suppose that our pupils’ lack of achievement in mathematics is more to do with our social and cultural attitudes and pedagogical approaches/strategies than their biological makeup. But this is nothing new – it’s been debated by critics and commentators for decades.

So what are we doing wrong as educationalists when it comes to maths?

My Indian counterpart thought that as a nation we are guilty in allowing pupils to believe that they can function reasonably well without academic qualifications in Stem subjects. We undermine these subjects and their worth by promoting fame, social media, celebrity culture and materialism as an antidote to logic and rationality. We’re guilty as a nation; we’re guilty as a culture. We give too much credence to freedom of expression, equality, diversity, gender neutrality and body politics than we do to academia. Teachers need to be able to correct their pupils, guide them in their thinking by making value judgement without the fear of incrimination. In India, education is still seen as a privilege not a universal right and hence their pupils adjust their attitudes accordingly.

In the last few years, in Britain we have also popularised and infantilised the curriculum. Despite Michael Gove’s move to make academic subjects more rigorous, we continue to devalue them, making them accessible and easy to manage. In many schools, fun activities in the classroom take precedence over hard work. Rote learning went out decades ago. Who now makes their pupils recite times tables? It’s considered almost meaningless and dull just like teaching grammar or reciting poetry.

Education policy

Moreover, "rigour" is part of political speak – it means the opposite, in the way "employment services" actually means "unemployment services", or "ministry of defence" means "ministry of armaments". In our current education policy, logic and formulaic thinking are something that take second place to arts, expression and feelings, and hence they are sidelined to irrelevance and obscurity. We are guilty of muddled thinking.

Having so many examining boards does not do our pupils any service. They merely create a qualification inflation because examining boards are competing for schools, wanting their business. Schools look for examining boards that will provide the easiest syllables or exam papers.

Essentially, we need to recreate a culture that is progressive and not regressive. We need to prioritise maths in the curriculum and give it prominence in pupils’ programme of learning. We have to change our attitudes and make stronger links with intelligence and pupils’ ability in arithmetic. Most importantly, we need to change a national climate that undermines rigour and instead champions sex/gender politics and individuality. Schools are in the business of building pupils’ confidence and their awareness of social justice. They prioritise these at the expense of pupils’ learning and knowledge.

Like my Indian friend, I believe that as a nation we need to reinforce the idea that education is a privilege and not just an expensive past-time, a national project on par with something like a glorified crèche facility for teenagers. As a nation, I believe we need to place education and serious learning on a par with something worthy and credible – something that precedes our cultural styles, trends and fads. We need to correct children. Every Child Matters does not mean every child is right.     

Dr Roshan Doug is a visiting professor, strategist and educational consultant at the University of Birmingham

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