War and Peace on a postcard

7th July 1995 at 01:00
When a new book landed on my desk last week I was unwise enough to start judging it by its cover. The fact that it was slim, A4 and bore the logo of the Office for Standards in Education persuaded me it must be an official curriculum document. Its title, Recent Research in Mathematics Education 5-16, suggested formidable content, poor quality print and lots of footnotes. Finally, it was blue, so it must be about mathematics (all national curriculum subject documents are colour-coded). In reality only my last assumption was correct.

This slim volume's stated aim is to present a review of post-Cockcroft research in mathematics education in an accessible form. This sounds a bit like trying to rewrite War and Peace on a postcard, but actually the authors have largely achieved their aim. Twenty issues in mathematics education are considered. Each takes up rather less than two pages, including a list of the research used. References and footnotes on the page are avoided, although notes at the back of the book detail the items referred to in the text.

For example, the first topic dealt with is "The International Context". This considers international comparisons of the mathematical performance of secondary pupils. A page-and-a-half is devoted to summary and discussion of recent relevant work. The issue is discussed in a reasoned and balanced manner and there is discussion of similarities between countries as well as differences. The authors offer some conclusions while pointing out the difficulties of comparison and interpretation which such studies present. Maths teachers in England and Wales will find much of the text topical and stimulating. Food for thought comes in the observation that countries with high attainment in mathematics also tend to have a negative attitude to the subject.

The book moves on from attainment in secondary education to look at the number skills of pre-school children. There is a good balance of primary and secondary interest here, with most articles being relevant to all age groups. The topics include old chestnuts such as calculators and computers but more recent areas of concern are covered too.

The section on addressing misconceptions, for example, deals with an issue raised in the latest OFSTED maths report. Grouping for maths, including grouping by attainment, is another current concern and the discussion might well assist schools to reassess their own policy. Teaching strategies are also considered through such topics as the use of questioning and of praise. After so many years when the danger has been that discussion of curriculum content would dominate, it is good to see teaching methods being given more prominence. The section on gender is also welcome as it presents recent research in an area where manyof the better books are becoming dated.

Many will welcome the book's readability, achieved without giving the impression that these are issues with simple answers or that all researchers are in agreement. It skilfully condenses research findings for a wider audience of teachers and intending teachers, who have strictly limited time. There are likely to be readers who want more detail and they are told where to look. The authors make it clear in their introduction that quality of research has been carefully considered. The sources mentioned range from fairly well known and widely-used books to academic journals, many of them American, which are often hard to locate.

We are told in the foreword that this is the first of a series commissioned by OFSTED. I await the others with interest, uncertain for the moment how to react to the official packaging of research findings. Bringing such findings to a wider audience is certainly a positive step, as is recognition thatthey should inform educational decision-making. Yet political considerations can hardly be discounted in these publications.

Finally, it is to be hoped that this book is kept up to date. An existing book with a similar title has now passed its tenth birthday. A colleague of mine, questioning its title, suggested it should be called not "recent research" but "decent research".

Either title would fit this current book.


Researchers have found the following factors to be particularly important: * the way misconceptions are dealt with;

* choice of examples;

* style of questioning;

* type of praise used;

* teacher knowledge of pupil attainment;

* pupils' confidence in their own ability;

* effective use of new technology;

* the composition of groups.

Jenny Houssart is a lecturer in maths education at Nene College, Northampton. RECENT RESEARCH IN MATHEMATICS EDUCATION 5-16 by Mike Askew and Dylan William is published by HMSO, Pounds 6.95, 0-11-350049-1.

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