The joy of maths - if exams don't matter

5th August 2005 at 01:00
Some climb mountains "because they're there". These past two years I've been doing maths - not a PhD or anything, just GCSEs and A-levels - for the same reason: the challenge.

The challenge lay not in getting the qualifications - been there, done that - but in seeing whether I could recapture something I lost thirty-odd years ago, in relation to maths anyway: enjoying learning. Seeing whether an ordinary person of average mathematical ability, not some megabrain, could have fun with maths.

It didn't start that way. It started with daughter approaching the stage in her schooling where I could no longer brush the rust off my old brain fast enough to help with maths. Loath to employ a tutor for the odd bit of help she needed, and suffer the blow to my "mum knows all" status, it was off to the local FE college for some serious rust removal. First to do the GCSEs, then on to ASA2 levels. Before many weeks into the former, the motivation of helping daughter had been superceded by a new one: fun.

I vaguely recalled having once, despite being nothing spectacular in the mathematical world, enjoyed maths. Euphoria used to seize me on seeing the light after a hard struggle with this or that mathematical issue, when all the pieces of a puzzle fell into place.

Then came exams, teachers rushing to finish syllabuses, universities requiring top marks in just about everything, especially maths. Joy in learning new things, in conquering problems, was replaced by rote learning of formulae and set ways of solving set types of problems, by endless repetition of ever more boring exercises, so that I could provide answers to set sums in a set period of time.

To be sure, getting a good grade was satisfying but, somehow, getting it by mechanically cramming and regurgitating took all the pleasure away and left me with a vague feeling of being cheated.

Now, 30 years on, I could again relax into and enjoy the subject, with nothing at stake - not compelled to sit the exams to get a certificate, or to get on to a training course, or for a job. Just free to come to grips with the subject, see how it worked, internalise its connections, get the thrill of solving ever more difficult problems.

Rather than helping daughter with my new-found knowledge, we could work together and help each other as classmates. We both had excellent GCSE teachers, able to inspire both the average (me) and the above average (her) to love the subject, so that it took only a year for daughter to do the course and for me to get rid of the rust.

We both proceeded to the ASA2-levels - and a parting of the ways. I'd thought the whole idea of daughter's "set" taking the maths GCSE early was to give them more time to deal with the rest of their GCSEs. Alternatively, to give them a longer period to get to grips with the A-level maths, which is vastly more demanding in terms of the amount of work. Not so. They were to sit the full range of GCSEs that the rest of their year were sitting, as well as ASA2 maths, which sixth-formers were doing (in conjunction with only three other subjects).

The delight in the subject that had, in large measure, been responsible for daughter's A* at GCSE level, was replaced by the same cramming that had stopped me enjoying matric maths 30 years ago. Maths was a mad whirl of extra classes to finish the syllabus. Jammed among preparation for the rest of her exams, daughter stumbled through, memorising things mechanically, hoping that through sheer repetition of exercises in textbooks and old exam papers she would learn enough to sit her own exams.

Meanwhile, I, with the choice of when or whether to sit the exams, could play with maths. I've had so much fun, I'm contemplating a few more A-level modules. Then I might just buy a load of maths books and keep playing with maths for fun. Or I might take a university course and teach kids to love maths.

But daughter and her peers? Even the brightest will be glad to be shot of maths. I doubt any of them will continue with it, except as a stepping stone necessary for some degree or other. Another generation of potential mathematicians lost to exam overload.

Shereen Pandit is a writer and lives in London

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