\doc\web\2000\02\newmath.txt
From: "Stewart Deuchar"
To: "ClearingHouse"
Date sent: Thu, 2 Mar 2000 06:52:50 -0000
Subject: [education-consumers] 'New' maths in the UK
Send reply to: "Stewart Deuchar"
Copies to: education-consumers@lists.dundee.net, kto16-l@csun.edu
Priority: normal
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I understand that the subscribers to the kto list are primarily
mathematicians, so they may be interested in an account of what has been
happening to school maths in the UK. I am not a mathematician, but my
son is and I have tried to keep abreast with developments. I hope that others
who are better informed than I am will put me right if I am grossly in error in
important respects.
During my own time at school, in the Twenties and Thirties, maths was
divided into Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry and Trig. Yes, there was a lot of
repetitive drill. I remember that we used to spend a lot of time factorising
expressions like "twenty-eight a squared, plus fifteen a, plus two" (sorry I
can't set it out properly here) in preparation for tackling quadratic equations. I
was terrified of the Arithmetic master, who was a sadist, but I loved
Geometry and it is still fresh in my memory. In those days maths was
maths and the whole idea that it could be made into something else was
inconceivable. Nobody accused it of being a bastion of white supremacy or
anything so idiotic.
Then in the Sixties something called 'New Maths' (alias 'Nuffield Maths' or
'School Mathematics Project') emerged. It was largely the brainchild of the
staff at Abingdon School, at which my son happened to be a pupil. On
parents' days I questioned the maths teachers about the philosophy behind
this amazing transformation of what had seemed to me inviolable. Although I
am sure they were sincere and dedicated teachers with the best interests of
the children at heart, I could never see a blind bit of sense in it. Later, when
my elder daughter was in tears over the prospect of having to take 'new'
maths for her GCSE exam at 16, I bought the textbooks and we worked
through them together over a period of a year, joined in our endeavours by
another girl who was in the same case. We all took the exam at the same
time. For the record, I got a 'B'. My daughter got a 'C' and the other girl got a
'D'.
Since then, as I understand it, things have not changed a great deal. The
'new' maths is still the reigning orthodoxy, verging, in its extreme forms, on
'Rainforest Maths', or 'Fuzzy Maths', but we seem to have managed to avoid
'Ethnic Maths' - at least so far. As might be expected, the philosophy of the
'New' maths seems to be based on the trendy dogmas of 'breaking down
subject boundaries', avoiding 'drill and kill', and introducing a whole lot of new
'skills' and processes whose main virtue is their novelty. So out went the
division of maths into three main study areas, and in came an obsessive
preoccupation with things like networks, 'clock arithmetic', Venn diagrams,
different bases for counting, matrices, transformations and a whole new
vocabulary to describe things with which we had previously become familiar
without needing to attach names to them. (The hugely successful Kumon
maths course seems to manage without bothering with vocabulary.)
Geometry has sunk without trace, and, most importantly, out went the whole
concept of mathematical proof, with the result that from being a majestic
body of laws and processes governing the functioning of our universe, maths
has been trivialised into a ramshackle collection of bits and pieces of interest
to a few cranks and others whose livelihoods depend on knowing how to
calculate the odds on getting a hand of thirteen spades and suchlike.
So far as possible, the 'new' maths rejects the traditional ways in which
mathematical propositions are set out. Children are now habitually
confronted with things like:
8 + ? x 6 - ? = 40
When I first encountered this I was completely at a loss until I realised that
the two ?s are supposed to be taken as representing the same value, but
this is nowhere explained. I have seen hollow squares and other exotic
symbols used in the same way, not to mention all sorts of tricks with arrows,
ticks, coloured margins and elaborate embellishments, including fatuous
cartoon characters, which are supposed to be helpful, but in fact merely
confuse.
No doubt the 'progressives' would like to have abolished maths altogether,
since it is inherently so 'square' and intractable. But maths is too important
to be abolished altogether, so, in the same manner as their way with the
subject of history, they have distorted it, transformed it and above all
trivialised it. In so doing, they have presumably hoped to strike a blow for
equality, social justice and racial harmony, while at the same time pouring
scorn on 'the forces of conservatism' and the Gradgrind philosophy of
education. But in the event, as far as I am aware, the effects of these
changes have been wholly negative. The worst hit, naturally, are the least
able.
One of the most outspoken critics of the 'new' maths is a left-wing universtiy
lecturer named Tony Gardiner, but the prospects of getting back to
something sensible seem to be remote.
Blessings, Stewart
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