Saturday, 3 March 2012

I can't add. I could, I can't, I can. My Maths skills story.

Well, it seems we are a nation of mathematical idiots. Articles in all the press this week emphasise the fact that people in the UK can't tell what change to expect, are unemployable, and basically idiotic, although we can read (just). It's my belief though, that this is simply a faliure to take a maths GCSE, NOT a faliure in general. Here is my maths story.

A child genius (according to me and my mum), I was put into my English and Maths O Levels early at 12/13. It was assumed, I think, that as I was really very bright at English, I was faking my complete idiocy at maths. I wasn't. I got the English, failed the maths. Onto the very first, ever, year of GCSE (1988). Passed 10 GCSE's at A and B. Failed maths. Onto A levels. Took 4, passed 4, failed maths GCSE again. And again. Onto university, as thankfully, this was before a maths GCSE was compulsory to go, as they (sensibly) reasoned that to take a History degree, 4 A levels and 2 S levels were perfectly adequate. Here, I retook, and re-failed the maths as a favour to the education department and their investigation into inumeracy. After completeing a postgradute degree, I gave up. I then worked in a large university library, where I had budgetry responsibility for an entire subject department, and regularly used complex formula to determine, amongst other things, wastage, withdrawal of material and reprographic usage. I completed yearly investigations into use of books, worked out percentages, wrote financial end of year reports,  statistical analysis reports, library OPAC computer statistical reports, and generally used maths every single day despite not having a GCSE, without any major disaster.

But then I decided i'd retrain as a teacher. And a maths GCSE was compulsory. So I betook myself off to an evening course and related my sorry history to the teacher. Who promptly undertook to pass me. And lo! at the ripe old age of 28, I finally found a teacher who managed to explain to a very left brained person the right brained side of maths. He got me drawing fractions, imagining equations, and suddenly, for a brief period running up to the exam, I was maths wonderwoman. I dreamt maths. I drew maths. I bored people witless in the pub with maths. We had a debate about the paper to put me in for. Intermediate, I said ( you can get a C, but no more). Higher, he said. He took me out for many beers, and won. I sat the higher. I got an A. My mother still doesn't believe me.

Almost immediately after leaving the exam hall, all knowledge about quadratic equations left me. I found myself, in maths terms, almost exactly the same as I was prior to my mathematical genius being born. Except now, I could teach. So I did. I used my maths to demonstrate hyperinflation in Weimar Germany, to explain communism, the Tithe, the Weregild and taxation. And to write statistical reports. Every, sodding, job. In effect, the GCSE did nothing for me.

No, no. It's not that the GCSE did nothing. It's that the difference between a D grade (fail) and a C grade (pass) is nothing. As a teacher, I know that the crunch point comes when you decide what paper you are going to put the student in for. Lower means you don't expect anything much. Intermediate means they might scrape a C. Higher means that the school is happy for them to risk that League Table status. In any other subject the teacher makes the decision in YEAR 9, sometimes 10. Yes, you read that right. Your kid is already pigeonholed as they start taking the GCSE year(s). In History, one paper fits all, so I was often in the unique situation to see a student who was taking "lower" in all other subjects suddenly come into their own in Year 11, and acheive a B or C in history, which is not, believe me, an easy option. It's simply that, particularly for boys, the "on" switch happens later, and more slowly, for some. It became apparent to me that many, many students were in effect written off and denied the chance to attain a good grade simply because they might be late developers, or not have attained in earlier years. And for the sake of the league tables, schools do not want to risk a "fail". I suffered from blind optimism and bad teaching, other kids suffer from underestimation. So, the first thing to go is the assumption that all kids can be pigeonholed for GCSe paper selection.

Next up is the assumption that to get a "D" grade in maths is to fail. I got a D 5 times. I was a successful, financially responsible person in charge of budgets. Many, many people who bemoan the lack of mathematical intelligence in kids now would benefit from taking a look at what you need to do to get a"C". Frankly, everything you need to know to function as an adult is there at "D". Fractions, percentages, cash knowledge, statistics, measurements, all at "D". "C" is quadratics, trigonometry. Cleverer, yes. Utterly necessary, no.

And then, there's the teaching of maths. It's HARD if you are not a maths person, and it is very hard to make the subject thrilling. Furthermore, it's not the sort of thing that you can  catch up on if you miss a lot. I had months at a time off of school as a child, due to hospitalisation, and whilst I could catch up on reading, and even, indeed, get ahead (on on notable occaision I returned to school having read the entire reading scheme, and was afterwards allowed to bring my own books into school), it is very difficult to keep up with maths. Miss the first few lessons on percentages, and you stand a real chance of never "getting" it.

Add to that the fact that it's teacher relevant. Get a good one, you "get" it. Get a bad one, you don't. I am a perfect example of that. If, at 13, my teacher had shown me the simple tactic of drawing fractions and percentages, I might have had my on-swicth moment a good 15 years earlier.

Of course more people need to get maths. It's shopping, it's special offers, it's averages and pay slips, it's budgets and weekly shops and mortgages. But that is the true measure of worth. Teach money management, teach credit and percentage increase on cards. Your life is better if you can manage money. The ability to solve a quadratic equation, whilst fun, is not vital. Let's make it clear what makes an employable, numerate person. It isn't, always a "C" grade. It isn't, always, an "A" grade. Maths needs a revamp. If i were in charge (oh, please.....), i'd take the route of AS/A2. I'd hive off "real" math from the harder stuff. I'd get together a pass mark that was certified to say "this person can handle a budget". "This person can buy/shop/sell sensibly". Make a new maths pass mark.

That's not to say, mind you, that I don't utterly love my daughters invention of the number "eleventeen".


Kilburnlad said...

As always, I'm generally in agreement with what you are saying. Thank you for the very readable and interesting posts.

However, Britain desperately needs more engineers (real ones that is; the term is disgracefully misused) and scientists. As an electrical engineer I can assure you that you NEED more advanced maths, and I know that's equally applicable to other engineering disciplines. Brunel didn't build bridges, tunnels, ships etc. by having just enough maths to keep his finances in order.

So, along with the well-publicised shortage of physics teachers we also need some inspiring maths teachers if we are to stand even half a chance of getting back into the industries that create wealth. After our love affair with financial services (look where that's got us), that actually took in many of the best mathematical brains, we've now got to encourage and reward engineering and manufacturing (industries all but destroyed by Mrs T) if we have any hope of emulating and competing with Germany, not to mention China. And that's the future.

I fear however that we have become a 'service' economy that just re-sells things rather than creating them. That way lies disaster, or at the very least a much reduced standard of living.

Of course not all children will aspire to engineering, and many will not have the technological aptitude, but I bet there are many more budding technologists than our education system is currently nurturing.

Fenwitters said...

I agree. My dad was a print worker (Pre-Murdoch) and from the days when you could be apprenticed at 14. He subsequently went onto more complex engineering through on the job training (which we now also lack). I think the biggest thing is the mental leap: the assumption that all kids can get a "C" and it magically enables them is just wrong. at the same time, there should be more supprt for those who CAN go for maths in a big way. And it should be applied maths, with links to industry, and manufacture. I totally agree with you rgarding the IT teaching. I was one of the students faced with a massive BBC micro the size of a house, my dad got an Amstrad. IT intelligence was grounded in code, not WYSIWYG. Even my early librarian training took in gateways, not web, Boolean logic and coding. Now, we do our children a diservice if we do not equip them with the means to think of an alternative to Microsoft. My son has an engineer type brain. Both his grandads are engineers. I watch him build things and figure out spatial and physical problems when building, and I can see that he is that way inclined. I can also see that primary schooling is more about sitting down and listening than building, but that's a WHOLE new post.....

Kilburnlad said...

The 'good' news is that there seems to be an increasing awareness, in the technical press at least, that the IT curriculum needs to get back to coding and away from teaching children how to use Microsoft.

However, you no doubt know better than I do the machinations of the national education system, so it's anybody's guess when, or if, this realisation will start to actually impact on the classroom.

I have fond memories of the BBC model B. The satisfaction in getting my first BASIC program to work is indelibly engrained in my memory. That's the way to engender enthusiasm. Not writing a letter in WORD. I must admit, however that you can still have some pseudo-programming fun with Excel.