Prescriptive Maths Teaching Impedes Real Understanding

Adnan Al-Daini

Having trashed teaching qualification (QTS)[*] by telling academies that they could appoint teachers without QTS qualifications, Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, is at it again, this time telling teachers how to teach mathematics.  Whatever next? Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, telling doctors how to treat patients?

The arrogance of politicians, from all parties, when it comes to education is breathtaking. Micromanaging lessons to the extent of compulsory rote learning of the times tables, counting, Roman numerals etc., is a vote of no confidence in the professionalism of teachers that will lower their morale and impact negatively on standards.

Teaching in a school is not for the fainthearted.  I should know, for I taught mathematics in a school, taught engineering in a university and worked in industry.  School teaching was the most demanding, the poorest paid, and the least appreciated, and that was before government interference in the minutiae of education became fashionable.

I know many teachers who are trying to do their best under circumstances that are making it extremely hard to do so. They are doing a good job, not because of all this uninformed interference but in spite of it.  Even Michael Gove’s own adviser has distanced himself from the proposals. Andrew Pollard, one of the four academics involved in the review, described the proposals as “fatally flawed”, saying:

"It is overly prescriptive in two ways. One is that it is extremely detailed, and the other is the emphasis on linearity – it implies that children learn 'first this, then that'. Actually, people learn in a variety of different ways, and for that you need flexibility – for teachers to pick up on that and vary things accordingly.”

It does not require an expert in education to make the above statement; any teacher will tell you that. Responsible engaged parents will know that as well. Why it is not obvious to Michael Gove is beyond me!

This kind of mechanistic linear form of education stifles talent, kills inventiveness, ingenuity and real understanding of the subject.  It takes the joy out of learning; it hinders the discovery of the principles that underpin science and mathematics.  With this kind of education, you may succeed in getting children to recite times tables, but in the process you are likely to put off the truly talented.

I have come across many pupils who understand their fractions and decimals not by following rules, but by having an innate ability to understand these subjects in depth.  Teaching should be left to the teachers; leave them to be flexible to get the best out of their pupils.

If you really want to improve the education of the many in the UK, Mr. Gove, do what Finland did.  Raise the status of teachers, and make becoming a teacher a profession to aspire to on a par with becoming a lawyer, a doctor, or a scientist. Then leave them alone and trust them to do their job. 

The 2009 PISA tests[.pdf] (OECD Programme for International Study Assessment) in which 65 countries were assessed, ranked the UK 28th in mathematics.  This kind of simplistic, shallow, ill-thought out interference is likely to damage real education, and will see the position of the UK slipping even further down the table.

[*] - Qualified Teacher Status

Dr Adnan Al-Daini took early retirement in 2005 as a principal lecturer in Mechanical Engineering at a British University. His PhD in Mechanical Engineering is from Birmingham University, UK. He has published numerous applied scientific research papers covering heat transfer, fluid flow and energy utilization in many industrial applications. He is a British citizen born in Iraq. Since retirement he has devoted his time and energy to building bridges and understanding between minority communities, particularly the Muslim community and the wider community in the South West of England. He was Chair of Devon Racial Equality Council between 2007/8. Adnan is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post.

Photo: © N/A


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