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Archive for June 25th, 2010

A while ago, I picked up an old book at a fair. It was a maths textbook, but not just any old maths textbook. The author commented on the fact that maths was being taught in schools and colleges as a paper exercise, not as a living subject. He gave examples of how maths could and should be used – for hobby subjects, for household tasks, in business and industry etc.

Subsequently, I came across an essay called Lockhart’s Lament. The author expressed sorrow at the fact that maths was being taught as a rote subject, rather than teaching people how to be creative and think with the data.

As a creative and whole-part, rather than sequential or bit-and-piece learner, I can relate utterly to the points these authors are making.

The way maths is typically taught in schools usually starts with basic arithmetic and then moves on to more complex topics. It is assumed that one topic will flow logically to another, accuracy and speed at each being demanded before the next topic is introduced.

As a young child, being presented with the subject in a way that was anathema to my creative/visual learning style, I rebelled in a way that could be expected of a person that age: I disengaged from the subject and underachieved. What would have nipped this in the bud would have been if some alert teacher tuned in to the fact that what I needed was the big picture – what were the purposes and goals of this subject called maths? What was its scope, what did it encompass? What else did it do, apart from sums?

Having spent the early years resisting a subject that I regarded as inherently pointless, I started to feel that perhaps I was just no good with numbers. In my opinion, most people in the class seemed to be much better at it than I was, and I felt demotivated and worked very slowly. The teachers, however, continued to beat to death those dreaded sums. How I hated them.

Perhaps because of my lack of confidence at figures, or the fact that I worked so very slowly, particularly in a pressurised situation such as an end of term exam, I simply got dumped by the school in a very low class for maths. We were still grinding away at fractions and decimals right up to the final school term, and never progressed onto the topics, such as geometry or statistics, that I might have found more interesting.

What might have debugged the subject for me at this stage would have been for the teacher to present some of those other maths topics totally regardless of my performance at sums, and wait and see whether these would pique my interest and I would bite. Then, if I saw that weakness at any part of arithmetic was getting in my way, I would have motivation to fix it. Or, knowing the workings of my own mind, it might well have just fixed itself. Give me the core concept, and the details tend to take care of themselves.

No one would think of telling someone who had difficulty with spelling that they couldn’t enjoy stories or poetry until they learned how to spell properly. To do so would probably be one of the most crushingly demotivating things that a teacher could do to a student. Yet this is clearly analogous to the way we are taught maths. Is it any wonder there are so many people who dislike the subject or think they have no aptitude for it?

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