Not such beautiful minds

6th June 2008 at 01:00
Trainee maths teachers in England lag behind other countries in logic, but they're fine on average

Trainee maths teachers in England lag behind other countries in logic, but they're fine on average

Maths teachers in England lag far behind their foreign counterparts in their ability to use reasoning and think logically. But they did better on statistics.

A Plymouth University study set a test to compare the ability of secondary maths teachers in their final year of training with their counterparts in seven other countries.

Only 21 per cent of the English trainees correctly answered a question about the chance of picking types of sweets out of a bag, compared with 97 per cent of Russians.

And a simple question about square roots, which foxed nearly half of the English trainees, was answered correctly by more than 90 per cent of their Russian, Chinese and Hungarian colleagues.

The English candidates were also weak on algebra. But it was not all bad news. The English candidates performed well on shape and space questions about trigonometry and geometry, and on data handling questions covering statistical techniques such as averages.

David Burghes, director of the Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching at Plymouth, said he was alarmed that so many had got "very basic" questions wrong.

"England is not at all disgraced by these results, but there are clear topics that we do underperform in," he said. "We are so far behind other countries and the international average in terms of logic and rigour.

"That worries me because it almost feels like we have gone for numeracy rather than mathematics in our schools, particularly primaries - and I think mathematics counts."

His research was released in the same week that a report from Reform claimed that GCSE maths had become a "tick-box test" in comparison with the 1970s O-level, which it described as a "rigorous test of thought and initiative".

The think tank estimated that the economy had lost pound;9 billion since 1990 because nearly 440,000 pupils had turned their backs on the subject post- 16.

Professor Burghes suggested that teacher training institutions should be allowed to run their own schools to improve practice.

His research, funded by the Centre for British Teachers, compared English maths teacher trainees with those in China, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Japan, Russia and Singapore - all with good reputations for maths education.

Subjects, pages 14 and 15


Questions to be answered without a calculator

1. There is a large number of 5 different sweets in a bag. What is the least number you have to take from the bag to make sure that you get at least 3 of the same kind (percentage correct)

England - 21%

Hungary - 63%

Russia - 97%

China - 60%

2. Is the following statement A: always true B: sometimes true C: never true?

"A square is a rectangle"

England - 61%

Hungary - 87%

Russia - 100%

China - 76%

3. Is this statement true or false?

"If the result of squaring a number is 49, the original number must be 7"

England - 53%

Hungary - 93%

Russia - 90%

China - 100%

Answers: 1 - 11; 2 - A; 3 - false, it could also be minus 7.

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