Mathematics – Why the Problem?

Dick Evans bemoans the negative attitudes towards mathematics that persist in British culture

A great quote – ‘Nature talks to us in mathematics’ – Richard Feynman

There have been a number of developments following the publication of my article in the September edition of Numeracy Briefing. Some people responded agreeing with many of the issues highlighted in the piece whilst others disagreed with the arguments. Recent announcements about the closure of the physics department at Reading University and the close call for the closure of Chemistry at Sussex have re-ignited the debate about the ongoing crisis in the state of university science education in this country. The number of university departments of mathematics has declined from 102 to 85 in the past ten years (UUK 2006) mirroring similar declines in the sciences. However it’s not just in physical sciences in higher education that problems exist. The number of students entering GCE A level mathematics has declined by 21.5% between 1991 and 2005.

Underestimating the problem

Such evidence has been building up for a few decades about the inevitable crisis in the quantity and quality of candidates studying key subjects like mathematics, statistics, the physical sciences and engineering at all stages of education and training. There are equally worrying concerns about such subjects as modern languages which is another strategically important subject in the emerging global economies. The recent superficial (and to my mind vacuous) concerns expressed by Tony Blair again reflect his and his government’s total lack of understanding of the massive problems associated with these strategically important subjects. It is five past midnight! The time and resources needed to reverse this downward spiral are truly immense and will not be arrested by the usual platitudes, empty rhetoric and the recalling of the past glories of British scientific and mathematical achievement. For example the gestation period required for establishing the necessary critical mass of a well-trained and educated teaching force is truly daunting and not resolved within the lifetime of a government or by ad hoc initiatives involving financial incentives etc.

Comparison with growing economies.

Graduation levels from schools, colleges and universities in countries like India, China and South Korea in these essential subjects are soaring whilst in this country the trend is moving in the opposite direction. Having just returned from Hong Kong I have witnessed first hand how China is placing science, mathematics and technology subjects as a top priority on its educational agenda. Mathematics is a pivotal subject both in its own right but also as an essential part in the teaching of many other subjects e.g. physics, chemistry and engineering. As my previous article highlighted there are a number of factors that have precipitated the present problems – chief among them being the lack of properly qualified teachers of mathematics an issue recently highlighted by Ofsted. But perhaps the causes are far more fundamental.

Possible causes and effects include:

  • Cultural factors.
  • The way mathematics and numeracy programmes are taught (when this is coupled with poor teaching it results in a very damaging cocktail).
  • The obsession with testing regimes associated with these subjects (This can result in a distortion of the content, particularly at the critical stage of the national curriculum which in turn leads to a lack of understanding of the subject. This approach can be characterised as teaching to the test).
  • The increasing use of computers, calculators and ICT multimedia in people’s lives (This seems to create a degree of passivity or acceptance in the way people want to or indeed expect to learn. Could these technologies actually erode the crucial element of curiosity so essential in the learning and understanding of mathematics?).

Unfortunately time and space does not allow all these elements to be more fully explored so perhaps I could return to some of them in later editions of Numeracy Briefing.

Mathematics in human history.

So let’s begin to unpack some of these related elements cited above. Is it just a cultural issue or have the current educational practices brought about a change in attitude and general perception of the subject?

History testifies that mathematics has alongside the acquisition of language been one of the major achievements of the human race. As the quotation at the beginning states, mathematics and number are everywhere around us so an understanding of it is part of our cultural inheritance. Many civilisations and countries have contributed to the body of knowledge we call mathematics and the subject has proved to be of fundamental significance in human development. Consequently it is the foundation of a wide range of human endeavours. Today encountering numerical information and data, which is the basic element of mathematics, is inevitable e.g. the ability to count, perform simple measurements, tell the time, manage personal finances and recognise shapes are essential to cope with life. From birth, people possess a natural curiosity and latent ability to appreciate basic concepts such as shape, relationships between objects and number, and provided they are in an encouraging environment, can develop the foundations for later competence and capability in mathematics.

Then they enter formal education i.e. the primary stage and for many of us it seems as if the batteries that energise learning mathematics are taken out. Whether it is poor teaching or an uninspiring and unchallenging curriculum, many soon lose their natural curiosity and resultant excitement for the subject. The situation gets worse at the secondary stage when pupils often learn mathematical concepts, techniques and formulae without needing to understand their purpose or use in the real world. However, it is not all the teachers’ fault. After all, it is the government and its agencies that prescribe the subject specifications and resultant syllabuses. Syllabuses and teaching are now heavily prescribed and this most certainly dampens the teachers’ and learners’ enthusiasm towards the subject, which does not encourage and sustain the essential ingredient of inquisitiveness so important to the subject.

A related issue is the current obsession with testing emanating from the use of league tables, which restricts, diverts and subsequently damages the teaching of mathematics and numeracy. The tests bear little relationship to the essential acquisition of mathematical understanding and appreciation of the subjects and places a premium on crude mechanical learning and knowledge, memory and rote learning. The tests do not allow the learner to explain their answers which are treated either as right or wrong – a massive disincentive in any learning process!

Is technology a problem?

My final point will no doubt prove controversial to some but is meant to provoke further debate. The advent of new technologies has brought many advantages but also a number of possible negatives. Information can be obtained almost instantly and very often in a high quality presentation format. This can engender a sort of passivity in the learner where one’s own personal curiosity and exploratory skills are replaced by the ‘black box’ and its assertive technology. Learning this way often dictates an unquestioning acceptance that the program must be right and too often does not challenge the learner to be divergent or creative. So perhaps the reluctant attitude to mathematics is an amalgam of factors, cultural as well as issues within the educational system. It must be addressed if this country has any chance of competing in the global markets increasingly dominated by science, technology and mathematics.

I will attempt to continue this journey in later editions and look forward to a constructive debate.

Dick Evans sits on a variety of committees looking at the future of mathematical education

**References: **

  • “Trends in UK HE”, Universites UK 6th Report, September 2006.
  • “The Supply and Demand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Skills in the UK Economy”, Research Report No: RR 775, DfES 2006′
  • “Engineering UK”. 2005, Engineering and Technology Board (ETB), Research Report November 2005.
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