More to maths than numbers

16th May 2003 at 01:00
USUALLY I think that Peter Wilby talks sense, but I want to take issue with his opinion on maths (TES, May 2).

Why pick on maths, just because he got eaten by "the shark"? He says, without doing so, that he can make a case for a number of subjects at GCSE, because it is only at 14 that the child starts to get permanent benefit from them.

What is his evidence? He cites "flocks" of people in museums and reading novels and says there will never be a TV maths channel. Presumably "flocks" of people watch Countdown, because they like playing with numbers as well as words and are impressed by Carol Vorderman's ability to do so.

The problem with education is that we always concentrate on the what of learning, rather than the how. And in what way is education meant to be useful? As part of the current review of 14 to 19 education there is much talk about "relevance". Education should be relevant to whom? And relevant for what?

Having taught maths for more than 35 years I have always been struck by how clear adolescents were about what maths they thought was useful and relevant. And it was not mortgages and pension schemes, as suggested by Peter Wilby. These "useful" ideas are as "irrelevant" to 14-year-olds as solving equations are to most adults.

What we do need to give our young people is a sufficient level of literacy and numeracy, so that when they want to write their will they understand what the legal language means and when they are buying a house or a life insurance they understand what all the figures mean.

Putting "will writing" into English lessons and a "certificate of financial studies" into maths is not the answer. And, instead of stuffing children's heads with historical and scientific facts that most of them will forget, education should concentrate on helping young people find things out for themselves and develop an enquiring mind.

My pupils often commented that maths was the only lesson in which they had to think!

Barbara Ball Professional officer Association of Teachers of Mathematics 7 Shaftesbury Street Derby

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