The monstrous monotony of maths

CALL me perverse if you wish, but I allowed myself a mere shadow of a smile when I heard that the 2002 pass rate for Higher maths represented a fall of 4.7 per cent from the previous year. I know that it's pretty unsporting behaviour, but push the pause button before you attack.

Maths is a compulsory subject in the school curriculum and virtually everyone takes it - in some shape or form - until they leave school. Numeracy is understandably regarded as being very important. Maths, along with English, tends to command the lion's share of the curriculum time allocation while the rest of us - history, religious education, art, music, drama, to mention a few - languish in Cinderella mode at the bottom of the pile. From S3 onwards, pupils choose to take subjects as a certificated option but English and maths are automatically served up.

Consider the effect of this. The remit of English and maths departments does not include the need to make their subjects so enthrallingly interesting that droves of pupils opt to take it. Not for these departments the savouring of the pleasure when pupils are so captured by the delight of the subject that they can't but sign on the dotted line of the option choices forms. Complacency inevitably creeps in when you don't have to market your subject.

But I must declare an interest here. In my previous life I taught English, which at least offers some kind of all-encompassing questioning and thinking about life as well as, hopefully, the skills of literacy. Most pupils enjoy English most of the time and, if they don't, they usually find it tolerable.

But how many youngsters are utterly compelled by maths? Maths is deadly. It was deadly when I sat at the front of a maths classroom as a frightened 12-year-old and there hasn't been much progress in the ensuing years. I have to be careful here - most of the maths teachers I know are bigger than me so, for the record, some maths teachers are marvellous in the classroom. But the subject is not meaningful to most kids. It is either monotony personified or they are absolutely terrified.

OK, being able to do the basics in arithmetic is essential. Adding, subtracting, dividing and multiplying are all worthy skills. But anything else is debatable. I have to confess that I nearly did succumb. I did take Higher maths for six weeks but quickly realised that it was going to be the proverbial cloud on my horizon and, before I lost the plot altogether, I escaped and have never looked back.

The modern world is looking not for parrots but for lateral thinkers. Maths is so 2 + 2 = 4. There is no room for challenging the perceived wisdom of Pythagoras or even just asking "Why?" Creative thinking is not required in the maths classroom so just what is achieved during these miserable hours staring at the same old problems, albeit in different guises? Very little is my guess.

Undoubtedly, there is another side to it but the pressing demand must be for maths teachers to consider that, in many schools, they are the most feared monsters. Maybe there is something they could be doing to enable their charges to be less afraid of the subject. Time to contemplate the unthinkable, that most kids don't enjoy maths.

When pupils have to opt for your subject you have to ensure that the ingredients of your teaching are beyond reproach. You simply can't afford an arrogant approach because you don't have that safety net waiting to catch you when you fall.

I recollect a frustrating conversation when a maths teacher insisted that Higher maths at A grade was worth more that Higher history at A grade. What garbage. We are all in the same ballpark when it comes to our exam results.

Marj Adams teaches religious education, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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