The mantra for as long as I can remember has been that it is essential for children leaving school to be numerate (and literate). But beyond the four rules of number it is difficult to find any real advantage in pursuing Maths to the level demanded at present. Who uses quadratic equations and, other than down at the bookies, what use is probability for most folk? There is always the cognitive development argument but it holds little sway with the majority of folk who just don’t get Maths.
Maths is a little like Marmite. You either love it or hate it. You end up competent or scarred for life, possessing an innate fear of anything that involves numbers. Nowadays there is no need to stand for ages in front of supermarket shelves trying to work out the best deals when you can do it in seconds on your mobile phone. Mental arithmetic is a thing of the past. When was the last time you worked out a ‘sum’ in your head? The answer is likely to depend on your age.
Business is always complaining that compulsory education does not meet the needs of the job market. It could be argued that the chasm between the two is wider than ever. At present the focus is all about performance with us competing against other countries to rise up the P.I.S.A league table (at present England ranks twenty third when it comes to maths) but education is changing as world leaders are realising that chasing grades is not delivering growth; be that economic, environmental or social.
Yet schools persist with taking on board the South East Asian approach to teaching, especially in maths. There is no doubt that learning by rote and ‘practice makes perfect’ provides competence but, as Einstein said “Never memorize something that you can look up in a book”…or find out on a phone!
Our brain is our greatest resource and, up until now we have barely touched on upon its capability. The fourth industrial revolution, cyber-technology has already begun. It is about combining the digital with the physical and expanding our minds using innovative, educational approaches. Science fiction? The traditional skills we have relied on for so many years are becoming defunct. So what skills do we need as we move forward?
Specific subjects will give way to more generic themes such as problem solving, critical thinking, emotional intelligence and working collectively. The new global economy is looking to maximise human wellbeing as opposed to capitalism. Freedom of speech is being overtaken by the principle of freedom of thought, something the Chinese approach to maths just cannot deliver.
In this fast changing technological world ‘the basics’ still provide the bedrock but it is not just what is taught rather how it is taught that is going to shape education.
80% of twelve year olds can correctly divide 225 by 15 but only 40% can solve the following problem; “If a car maker has 225 cars to place equally in 15 showrooms, how many would be in each?”
Cyber-technology goes much further. It combines the digital with the cerebral in order to solve real world issues. For example we might ask the question;
“Are men better drivers than women?”
Using key questions to stimulate activity is just the start. Work like this can then lead into some high end Maths. The pupils explore the internet, investigate and analyse available data. They might work as a team or individually. All the while they are developing much more than basic mathematical skills. Using evaluation techniques they can go deeper into the social side of the problem, using maths to assess reliability of information. Approaches like this provide, motivation and challenge, propelling pupils to perform at a much higher level than they would using traditional methods. They unlock the black box that is the brain. And if local companies provide the initial problem/data even better.
We now have computer coding in schools. This is a start but without a complementary educational strategy its value will be diminished. Most schools use educational software programmes that mirror traditional teaching methods. These do not develop the skills needed to progress. There is still a debate in schools about the efficacy of using digital technology in the classroom as old traditions resist change.
In 2018 P.I.S.A is going to assess skills such as problem solving and critical thinking. It will be interesting to see where we are in this league table. What happens in schools affects the success of our economy. Where is the ‘think tank’ for education that will take a longer term view of educational needs on the island? Without forward planning we will forever be late to the table and that puts our economic potential at a significant disadvantage.