The real trouble with maths

18th February 2005 at 00:00
So maths is deemed to be one of the worst-taught subjects in secondary schools (TES, February 4). The reasons given: too many lessons based on students completing exercises from textbooks; insufficient attention to problem-solving approaches; and "rigid setting arrangements" limiting students' opportunities.

Instead of blaming teachers for the parlous state of mathematics education, perhaps it is worth considering what is behind such practices, namely national tests and GCSE examinations Questions in these exams have for decades been based on fragmented mathematical content which, in turn, leads to fragmented, exercise-driven, teaching-to-the-test approaches.

It also means scant regard at national level to assessing problem-solving skills and strong encouragement from both New Labour and Tory governments to set students according to (facile) notions of ability.

If teachers are to have strong reasons to shift away from (or even better throw away) textbooks and move to problem-posing and problem-solving approaches, then teacher assessment must be given higher value than assessment by narrow testing. Inspectors must actively encourage pedagogic change so schools feel confident to scrap setting by ability.

There need, in short, to be fundamental changes to the edifice upon which mathematics education is founded. This will require deep, joined-up thinking at government, quango and local authority level. Blaming teachers and tinkering at the edges will just not do!

Mike Ollerton Tenter End, DockerKendal, Cumbria

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