Primary purpose

February 18, 2010

As part of its investigation into maths education in UK primary schools, Channel 4’s Dispatches programme has placed on its website a maths test consisting of 12 questions.

They questions are pretty basic, and the idea is to complete them in 15 mins. Pen and paper is allowed, but calculators aren’t.

The shocking result of the team’s investigation is that when primary school teachers were asked to sit a similar test, only one obtained a perfect score – and the average mark was nearer 50%.

Now even allowing for nerves in a test environment, that’s pretty lousy going. It’s especially dispiriting when you realise that attitudes to maths in the early years can carry over into high school, meaning that a poor experience at primary school can deter children from engaging in maths throughout their education.

This is often exhibited in the feeling that “maths isn’t for me”, or “I just don’t get it!” – the belief that there must be a mathematical gene present in other people but mysteriously lacking in oneself. As far back as Socrates – and no doubt well before – teachers have acknowledged that merely pointing to a board and reciting formulas doesn’t guarantee that students learn anything.

The so-called Socratic method (as in the famed conversation with the slave boy, from Plato’s Meno) involves what we would term today “active learning” – a synthesis of innate ideas leading to an inescapable conclusion: in this case, that a square can be doubled in area by drawing a square on its diagonal.

Of course, we need not subscribe to a notion of Platonic form (or Wordsworth’s “clouds of glory”) to account for the efficiacy of the method – there are an almost infinite varieties of current pedagogical theory which do that. Rather, it is key to involve students in the process of learning, as distinct from presenting students with the results to be learnt.

But how to ensure that involvement? That’s the big question … and one to which the answer can’t be found at the end of an online quiz.

PS: My own score? 11/12 – but I’m claiming I mis-read one of the questions!


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