'Clear detail' is a bit muddy

14th September 2012 at 01:00

While I wholeheartedly support Sheila Henderson's work highlighting the need to strengthen maths support in initial training and continuing professional development (CPD) for primary teachers, I must take issue with her emphasis on the value of "clear detail" in 5-14 guidance, in contrast with "vagueness" in Curriculum for Excellence guidance, at least for the example described (7 September).

The example discussed was for "rounding numbers." The 5-14 statements defined a string of instrumental tasks to be applied to bare numbers. Level B would be satisfied by correctly responding that the two-digit whole number 43, rounded to the nearest 10, comes out at 40. At level C this is stretched to round 643 to the nearest ten, to give 640. By level F, one might be asked to round 3.141592653 to three decimal places. All of these tasks are in principle context-free, and can be simply learned by rote without asking "Why would anyone ever want to do that?"

By contrast, the relevant CfE outcomes, at levels 1-3, all refer to developing an understanding of contexts where it might be sensible to do such things. At level 3: "I can round a number using an appropriate degree of accuracy, having taken into account the context of the problem." In the real world not everything is known or can be predicted precisely. Sometimes we need to estimate and often we have to cope with variability and uncertainty. The CfE outcomes make a valuable contribution to developing these skills and are more ambitious and engaging.

None of this reduces the need for much-strengthened teacher support, but it also needs to focus on the broader educational agenda.

Alan Roach, emeritus professor, University of the West of Scotland, and secretary to the deans of science and engineering in Scotland, STEM-ED Scotland.

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