New Order translates maths into English

29th September 1995 at 01:00
Study programmes now use principles instead of lists of graphs. All governments like to improve (official) statistics; this government is also trying to improve the guidelines for teaching statistics. At key stages 2, 3 and 4 in the latest maths curriculum there is still an attainment target devoted to handling data. There is, however, a reduction in content and an apparent change of emphasis in the new programmes of study.

Those who felt the content of the "Old Maths Order" was excessive should be slightly cheered by the slimmer version. Some things have been removed altogether, for example conversion graphs from level 5, network diagrams from level 6 and flow diagrams from level 7.

It doesn't seem five minutes since flow charts were introduced. I remember being told that when the era of widespread computer use dawned, we would all need to be able to draw flow charts and to calculate in binary. I can do both but have found neither to be of any use when my computer won't do what I want it to.

The departure of flow charts is a reminder that, although we are all desperate for some stability, the maths curriculum will change and it is not always possible to predict what will be useful in the future.

Some things have been moved to higher levels, for example the grouping of continuous data has been transferred from key stage 2 to 3. This is unlikely to be widely mourned as the use of "discrete" and "continuous" in the original documents was unhelpful to hard-pressed non-specialists. The fact that the examples of discrete data were all about handling personal information was rather unfortunate - it wasn't clear whether we were expected to handle discrete data or handle data discreetly.

There are also changes in the way the data handling section of the new documents is written. The programmes of study used to read like a daunting list of every possible type of graph or chart. Now the principles of data handling are much more in evidence. Purposeful inquiry is mentioned, as are links with other areas of maths.

Particularly welcome is the greater emphasis on the beginning and end of any data handling project - posing the question and considering the answer. At key stage 2, the new curriculum suggests that pupils should formulate questions about an issue of their choice which should be in a real context rather than entirely from books or work sheets.

Reading and interpreting graphs and charts is also given prominence, with the clear statement at key stages 2,3 and 4 that pupils should be aware of the possibility of uncertain and misleading conclusions. This reminded me of the phrase "Lies, damned lies and statistics", though I understand the originator of the phrase and its meaning excite almost as much debate as government statistics. Charts purporting to show teachers' average earnings spring to mind.

One hopes these changes will be helpful, particularly as the Office for Standards in Education and Training identified data handling as an underdeveloped area in many schools in its 199394 review. If you read the report, don't miss the graph on "quality of teaching". Unfortunately, due to an error, the graph shows the exact opposite of what it is meant to. Thank goodness we're all on the look-out for misleading data.

is a lecturer in maths education at Nene College, Northamptonshire

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