Wake-up call for maths teachers

Genevra Fletcher

ATTENTION all maths teachers. Forget about the minority of disruptive pupils in your class and start worrying about the quiet ones.

For according to academics these are the students most likely to be Tired - disaffected by Tedium, Isolation, Rote learning, Elitism and Depersonalisation.

Elena Nardi of East Anglia university and Susan Steward of Cambridge university believe passivity in a pupil is as much of a sign of defeat, and just as damaging to learning as disruption.

They observed and interviewed 14-year-olds in three Norwich schools who seemed to engage in classroom maths tasks but many had no enthusiasm and only took part out of a sense of obligation.

Pupils deeply resented topics to make maths relevant such as fence design or table manufacture to illustrate algebra and geometry tasks.

"What are we going to use them for? I'm not exactly going to design a fence," said one pupil. "And I'm not going to make my mum a table for her birthday and do squares on the outside of it," said another.

Maths is traditionally seen as an individual activity best under-taken away from others. But pupils said they were motivated by the camaraderie of collaboration.

They complained about teachers who made them work in silence, said learning by rote was alienating and described maths as an elitist subject because there can only be one right answer.

They also reported that maths teaching was impersonal. One pupil said her teacher taught at the pace of pupils who were more clever than the others:

"So people get confused and don't have enough time to answer the questions."

Last year the number of students applying to do maths at degree and A-level slumped. The researchers said numbers would continue to drop until schools wake up to the problem.

"Disaffection in Secondary Mathematics", British Educational Research Journal, June 2003

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Genevra Fletcher

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