Thursday 5 January 2023
What the young should learn
Yesterday our Prime Minsiter, Rishi Sunak anounced five priorities for the remainder of his premiership. For some strange reason the pre-announcement for the speech (now called a "teaser" I believe,) didn't mention any of the five priorities, but concentrated on his apparent determination for all students to study mathematics up to the age of 18. The reason why his PR departement decided on this tactic excapes me. However, since almost everyone has had an education of sorts, everyone thinks they are experts on it and most hold strong opinions, so it could be a useful distraction. Most people, in their "expert" opinion, believe that the young should learn what they learned. In my own father's case this included the abilty to recite the rivers of Yorkshire in order from north to south. As I could never do this (geography was not and is not my strong point) he never regarded me as properly educated. I've discovered when using this illustration when speaking to Roary Clubs, that many of his generation take the same view. Mr Sanak atended a posh public school and probably received a highly academic education which incuded both Classics and mathemenatics. Towards the end of my full-time teaching career I was fortunate to attend a course for teachers who were teaching some maths but whose principal qualifications were in other subjects. The course director pointed out that unitl twenty years ago (forty now) there was one subject which was regarded as absolutely essential to develop rational thinking and an orderly and enquiritng mind. That was Latin and "Look what has happened to that." The nessage I took to mean is that there is nothing super-duper wonderful about the study of mehamatics which will spill over into more fulfilling, responsible and useful lives. We need to think very carefully about what mathematics we are teaching and why. The primary purpose of education is not to prepare the young to be prductive workers, but to "open windows:" - to introduce the youhg to all the wonderful things the world has to offer, in literature, art, mathematics, music, engineering, physics, biology, history, geography, languages, performing arts or what you will. Some will taste, decide it's not for them and move on. Most, we hope, will find at least something to get exceited about and enjoyment from. For some it will be mathematics. They will just love artihetic, delight in geometrical relationships, and enjoy discovering unknowns through algebra. These enthusiasts will go on to higher things. Those needing nathematics to suport their interest in other areas (carpentry for example, or astro-physics) will learn to manipulate what is necessary. Others will find maths eithr a bore or a mystery or paossibly both. What mathematics is necessary to live a functionig life as a citizen? There is little point in plodding through painstaking methods of calcualting manually what can be done in a flash by a machine. For expample, I was taught how to calulate a square root using an algorithm similar to long division. So were most of my generation. There is litle point in attenpting it now that the result can be found by the press of a button on even the chapest of calulatiors. If you'e curious you can find how to do it here: https://www.onlinemath4all.com/square-root-by-long-division-method.html The essential tool for moderern citizenship is a thorough understanding of basic statisices. For example, when the rate of infation falls will prices stop rising? (No they won't). The average pay for nurses is said to be around £34 000 a year, which seems to me to be quite a good screw, but what is the median pay that the middle group get, or the modal pay that most get? Those don't seem to be reported. When Mr Sunak in his Chancellor of the Exchequer days increased employees' National Insurance Contributions from 12% to 13.25% was that a rise of a mere 1.25% or over 10%? This and the many related statistics bandied about by politicians are the mathematics with which all citizens should be familier. If this is what Mr Sunak has in mind I'm all in favour.