No knee-jerks over mechanics

29th November 1996 at 00:00
We are making decisions about the core of A-level mathematics (TES, November 15) in too much haste. There are many issues that need widespread consultation.

The study of kinematics and statics, for example, provides an ideal vehicle for mathematical modelling as well as for promoting technical facility with algebra, trigonometry and calculus. Modern courses have proved that mechanics can be motivating and provide an ideal preparation for higher education courses in applied science and engineering.

These topics, however, are not mentioned in the proposed core. Instead it is suggested that part of the core for both AS and A-level should be devoted to the "mathematics of uncertainty" (probability and statistics).

It is important that students appreciate how mathematics can be applied to model, and to reach solutions to, real-life situations. Mechanics is an ideal branch of mathematics for this. If there is to be an applied mathematics core, then kinematics and mechanics are just as necessary as basic statistics.

A second issue is the proposed ban on the use of calculators in part of all A-levels. This is a knee-jerk reaction to a perceived decline in "standards". What is important is that students learn to use whatever tools are appropriate to tackle problems. If calculators are not appropriate to answer certain questions, then students will not, or cannot, use them. It is, however, important that students do use calculators, and other information technology, when it is appropriate, and that they have a clear understanding of the resulting accuracy of their solutions.

Unfortunately, these and other issues are being overlooked in the rush to satisfy unrealistic deadlines. We are in danger of putting in place changes that will mean our A-level courses do not satisfy the needs of students, higher education or employers in the 21st century.

GEOFF WAKE Mechanics in Action Project University of Manchester Oxford Road, Manchester

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