A friend of mine linked to this on Facebook, and I felt I had to share it here (I suspect @aran might find it interesting) - it’s a mathematician’s essay on the state of mathematics in schools that could just as easily apply to languages…

I feel his pain…

"He just sits there staring out the window, humming tunes to himself and making up silly songs.”

Terrible. Doesn’t he realise he’s suppose to be doing Music?

But on the subject of maths, by and large, I found maths a painful subject at secondary school, which was a traditional grammar school (the sort that presumably traditionalists think we should go back to) and my enjoyment of the subject corresponded directly to the personality of the teacher. One or two were fantastic, but most were, frankly, dire, and were only interested in teaching the small fraction of pupils who got it first time.

I needed to think about it all more slowly, but there wasn’t time for that, and that obviously meant I was “thick” by their standards.

I began to enjoy maths much more well away from school, in a more enlightened college of FE and later a polytechnic, where the teachers/tutors seemed prepared to take time in actually explaining things to people who didn’t just have a natural gift for it.

Case in point: when teaching calculus, the teacher would keeping saying “…and in the limit (as x or y approaches zero)” and I asked "what do you mean ‘in the limit’? and he would just repeat over and over “in the limit”, seemingly without being able to explain it. He knew what he meant (presumably), but he could not explain it to me (or would not). I do (kind of ) understand what he was trying to say now, but no thanks to him (and several others like him in the same school).

I heard an interesting documentary on the radio a year or so ago about a maths teacher/researcher who was saying that a slower approach to understanding maths was perfectly ok, and maybe in some cases better. Suddenly after 45 years or so, I felt at least somewhat vindicated in my tortoise approach.

Having said that, it doesn’t sound like teaching maths in schools has improved much since I left.

At least there are some pretty good maths videos on Youtube these days.

Let’s be honest, the only bit of maths you’ll ever use in every day life (unless you get a job that uses something more advanced) is stuff you’ve learned before you leave primary school. Only scientists, engineers and computer programmers will ever use anything more advanced.

Well I aspired to be a scientist or an engineer, but my maths wasn’t good enough. So I ended up as a computer programmer (which fortunately isn’t all necessarily mathematical).

But I wonder how many people are unnecessarily cut off from a career in science or engineering because they (like me) can’t get a good enough grasp of the necessary maths because of the way it is taught? Or should it just be left to the minority who somehow just understand it without having to try?

It’s not like we are exactly over-endowed with scientists and engineers (or good science and maths teachers either).

As a computer programmer myself (well, currently studying software engineering in Aberystwyth), the only time I’ve used anything more complex than basic arithmetic was in AI (Pythagoras theorem to work out the straight line distance from one point in a maze to another), doing a little bit of animation in java (using trigonometry to work out the length of a line for a stick figure’s leg), and in maths exams…

I feel you pain. I was at grammar school 1947-53 and, apart from a maths teacher whose efforts to educate each pupil was in direct proportion to their sporting ability. (He taught sports also) our history master used to enter the room and say “pick up your pens and prepare to write”. He would the dictate for the rest of the lesson. This approach got me though “O” levels, but love of history took a lot longer to appear.

Thank you so much for giving us the chance to read this!! I haven’t had time to read it all yet, I got to page 9 and bookmarked it for later, but i am shocked to realise that I got to age 73 before finding out that mathematics really *is* an art and nothing to do with numeracy, which is just a useful by-product of mathematicians!!! Algebra is very useful in certain scientific contexts and physicists and chemists had to teach it when the school curriculum was changed to ‘leave it for later’! I didn’t realise that this and geometry and trigonometry were just the brushes and paints, not the subject itself!! Are we really teaching languages this terrible way as well???