Owning the rights

15th March 1996 at 00:00
Don Manley argues that we all have to be experts at doing sums in the real world.

Who owns mathematics? The answer could perhaps be "just about everybody thinks they should". Clearly the Government thinks it has ownership - hence the national curriculum - and clearly certain organisations in mathematics education think they have some ownership (SMP, for instance).

As a publisher, I'd like to think that my profession also had an interest, but there are many who think otherwise. The Association of Teachers of Mathematics, for instance, no longer reviews published courses in its house journal Mathematics Teaching.

I've written on this theme before, but I'm driven to resume it by a recent (and very charitable) review of Oxford Mathematics. The reviewer was saying in effect: "I'm not very keen on schemes because I like teachers to have ownership of writing their own materials; but I do like this one"! Behind this apparent damning-with-faint-praise lies an assumption that the maths teacher should own the means of producing the resources. I get the feeling it's a case of "it's my bat, my ball, and I'll make the rules".

I have a worry about this - and not just because I'm a publisher. Surely this attitude fails to recognise two important truths?

First, that mathematics in the classroom must be shared by teacher and student. Teaching has its origins, it seems to me, in the spoken word - but does that mean that the teacher has to "own" all the resources of all forms of communication? Surely not.

Second, mathematics in some sense is "out there" even if for teacher and pupil it must ultimately be "in here". There is a publicly accessible world which needs a publicly accessible understanding and documentation. This is why we have textbooks (perhaps even why we will continue to need public exams). The maths teacher no more owns mathematics than an ornithologist owns birds.

To come back to my original question then - who owns mathematics? Certainly we need professional experts in maths and education (and even maths education). Certainly the teacher must be in control of a class. And, for sure, no-one will take kindly to the ill-informed parent who can't see beyond the multiplication tables.

But, that said, we all need to recognise that mathematics has shared ownership: engineers, professional mathematicians, accountants, teachers, parents, and turf accountants. In fact, just about everybody - even publishers.

Don Manley is the senior commissioning editor for mathematics education at Oxford University Press. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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