From the editor
Did you see this a few weeks ago? I haven’t read the report and I wasn’t at the British Educational Research Association (BERA) conference, so I’m having to judge everything by the BBC coverage, but still I found myself thinking about this and wondering how valid the headline is.
Having tracked down the original press release, the first thing I noticed was that the study had carried an analysis ‘…of 3 000 secondary pupils’ performance in algebra, ratio and decimals test’ and from the study of these topics the press release concludes that ‘there has been little overall change in maths attainment since 1976’.
I was at school in the 70s and 80s and have very strong memories of maths being drilled into me. I also have memories of the School Mathematics Project (SMP) booklets and thinking that I’d had a great lesson if I managed to complete a whole booklet!
I was struck by how much what we value has changed and wondered what the modern students taking the exam last year must have thought of it. Is giving students a test carried out 30 years ago and analysing the results really comparing like with like? A study comparing English, maths and chemistry GCSEs and A Levels in 1975 and 1995 by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority suggested that ‘…standards shown by the majority of candidates have risen because of the greater emphasis on breadth and the accessibility of questions’.
I hope that we are moving away from the idea that maths is just about being able to do the content – manipulating equations or adding fractions for example – and are moving towards a subject that values developing reasoning, problem solving, analysing, communicating and other high-level process skills.
Of course, not everyone’s maths lessons were like those that I remember. I’m sure there were some maths classrooms where the teacher created an environment buzzing with original, creative, high-level thinking. I’m also sure that some people (I’m guessing that this is probably you and me!) were able to develop the higher order skills by repeatedly practising question after question where little changed except for the numbers.
But I want more for my students now than to be able to regurgitate algorithms and methods and to hope that they develop the process skills through repetition. I want them to construct their own understanding rather than to give them mine (as Malcolm Swan might put it), to know what to do when they don’t know what to do and to see maths as a subject in which there is much to discuss, rather than seeking the answer from the back of their text book.
I’d be really interested in seeing a comparison in students’ ability to problem solve, to apply those algorithms, to think creatively in a mathematical context. I believe that the modern maths classroom is a place where both the measurable ability to work with fractions, decimals, ratio and algebra is entwined with a less objective ability to generalise, to think creatively and to problem solve.
What do you think?