Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Primary maths curriculum proposals

What a depressing read is the set of proposals published yesterday for the national curriculum for mathematics for primary schools! The government's response to the fact that 20% of 11-year-olds fail to reach what they call the 'expected standards' in the current curriculum is to pack the curriculum with loads more difficult arithmetical content, thus ensuring that even more children will leave primary schools convinced that they are failures in mathematics.

They seem to have taken nothing out of the curriculum, apart from the slightly questionable attempts in the previous curriculum to specify development in 'using and applying mathematics'. But at least using and applying was there, upfront and clearly recognised as important. There are some laudable statements about solving problems and reasoning  mathematically in the introduction to the proposed programmes of study for mathematics, but we know from experience that these kinds of statements get overlooked if they are not there in the detailed requirements of the programmes of study.

And detailed they are! Gove has clearly had his way and packed the programmes of study with arithmetical requirements that look like a syllabus for a 1950s 11-plus examination (aimed at the top 20% of ability, of course). Interestingly, The Times editorial today approves these arithmetical expectations on the basis that if children could do these things in the 1950s then there is no reason why they cannot do them now.

Yes, there is! Because it is no longer the 1950s. Have they not noticed that the world and British society have changed in the last 60 years? Have they not spotted that we no longer have 12 pennies in a shilling, and we do not usually measure in feet and inches? (I don't mind children learning multiplication facts beyond 10 × 10, but how on earth can you justify making it statutory to memorise the tables up to 12 × 12?) And we now live in a technological world that makes a lot of the 'new' (i.e. very ancient) content in the proposed curriculum, in practice, redundant.

There's a totally bonkers statement about calculators in the proposal:

Teachers need to consider how ICT can best be used to support the teaching of mathematics. Calculators should not be used as a substitute for pupils having poor written and mental arithmetic. Calculators should therefore only be introduced near the end of primary, and only for those pupils who are secure in written and mental arithmetic to allow them to explore more complex problems.

Non-sequitur alert! The 'therefore' in the third sentence implies that this is a logical conclusion from the previous sentences. Sorry, but it isn't! If I am to consider how ICT can best be used to support the teaching of mathematics, I would recall that there are lots of activities with simple calculators that really help Year 4 pupils to understand how place value works with decimal numbers. But then I am told that I must not introduce calculators until Year 6!

So, a 9-year-old, who is more computer-literate and IT-skilled now than I will ever be, is to be forbidden (by law!) to use a calculator when exploring mathematical patterns, or when solving a practical mathematical problem that happens to involve some quite complex arithmetic. But, I guess there won't be time to do either of those things because the pupil will have to be practising their 'multiplication of a 4-digit number by a 2-digit number using a formal written method' and 'multiplying mixed numbers by a whole number' (When does anyone need to do this?? For example, to multiply 3⅚ by 5?)

Gove keeps going on about 'high-performing jurisdictions', such as Singapore, as being role models for us to aspire to. But do we really want the lives of our children to be dominated by hours and hours of after-school cramming by private tutors and to be devoid of creativity and enjoyment in learning? Because that's what you get if you go down this route. Significantly, just as the present government in Britain sends us in that direction, the Singapore education authorities are signalling that they want to replace cramming with creativity! (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-17891211)

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