Students who buy into CfE will often find themselves in a mental game of ping-pong

31st August 2012 at 01:00
Conflicting messages will be served by one side and batted back by the other, so keep your eye on the ball

Thirty years ago, plus or minus a fortnight, I was sitting in my first maths class at Moray House. Our tutor, a genial-looking chap with a "bald plus beard" upside down head and a tie whose pattern he would later explain could form the basis of much discussion in a geometry class, asked in a purring voice what we thought was the biggest issue in current maths teaching.

"Whether it's worth teaching kids all this abstract stuff about set theory, matrices and the like," I replied.

Instantly, he changed. The purring voice became a hiss as he leant over the desk and grabbed me by the collar, drawing my face level with his. "What do you know about it, you snotty, just-out-of-short-trousers git?"

No, that didn't happen. Instead, with more respect than I was due, he said, "Well, it's related to that," and told us about Munn and Dunning and the forthcoming introduction of Standard grade. Most of us bought into it, though we found our opinions ping-ponging a bit when we went out into schools and met the cynics, sceptics, septics and the innovators who had put in place their own initiatives to address the shortcomings of O grade.

Today's maths students will largely buy into Curriculum for Excellence, then find their opinions ping-ponging when they go into schools or, perhaps, when they read TESS. It pains me that something I wrote a while ago could be taken as anti-CfE. It was meant to be about my worries over implementation in some schools, but it was so ranty that I can see how the confusion arose. The piece I wrote about the teacher using road safety as a context for teaching about forces is much more representative of my feelings.

Anyway, I've gone off at a tangent. Hey! Tangents and I'm talking about maths. Sorry, a lousy joke from someone who was a lousy maths teacher. Fortunately, I realised this when I was a student and never again travelled that road. I think I know why I could never get beyond, "Here's the theory, here's a worked example, now do the 200 questions on page 91".

Physics isn't just fun, it's funny, being full of "that can't happen, oh wait it just did, let's work out why" counter-intuitive moments. I'm not saying maths isn't, only that I was never good enough to teach it that way.

Can I try again? An infinite number of mathematicians go into a bar. The first one asks for a pint of beer, the second, a half pint, the third a quarter, the fourth an eighth and so on. Sighing, the barman pours two pints. Now, if only I'd known that one when I was teaching convergent series.

Gregor Steele tried to relate all his maths teaching to motorbikes

Gregor Steele, Scottish Schools Education Research Centre.

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