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Politics and Mathematics

by Graham Curson, Plymouth, England

An observer from Great Britain comments about the interaction of politics with substance from the perspective of a nation that has expereinced many of the same debates about mathematics education as are now underway in the United States.

As a teacher of mathematics to students aged between 11 and 18 in England may I say how wonderful it was to read your documents on the internet. A similar debate in England could not avoid mentioning the government and politics. It was amazingly refreshing to come across a serious discussion that brought together the diverse and contrasting demands on any mathematics curriculum.

I am afraid that the question "Who Owns School Mathematics?" asked in England would have to include the responses of politicians. Necessarily this means those who have the ear of the politician. We used to have debates of your quality in the early 1980's and yours gives me hope that perhaps one day we will again.

In 1982 the Cockcroft Report entitled "Mathematics Counts" was published in England. At the time it seemed to hit the right chord, pleasing the vast majority of audiences, including teachers, business, politicians, press to name a few. There was a positive feeling and meetings had a real buzz that things were going to be good. It addressed a huge range of issues--use of technology, teaching styles, examinations, etc.

I obviously cannot remember from this distance whether my positive memories are because its publication coincided with my own youthful energy. But the optimistic feelings have long since withered on the branch of time. For a number of reasons politicians have made education in general and mathematics in particular a football. A National Curriculum may be a good idea but its implementation in England was a complete fiasco. Teachers were thrust into a maelstrom of change that created negative feelings of surprising intensity. The feeling was, and remains, that the professional opinions of teachers counted for nothing. We are in a climate that is obsessed with isolating teachers--any opinions contrary to the official line are deemed to come from teachers taught through an ideologically unsound system.

Negative? Yes and more than a touch. At the same time, the very nature of the English system leaves a huge amount of autonomy to the teacher in the classroom. Optimism can still reign. I remain convinced that the format of the National Curriculum is fundamentally wrong but that it can be effectively ignored in the classroom by having clear programs of work that reach beyond its limited thinking.

One of the core issues is a confusion between arithmetic and mathematics. Politicians express great concern at the lack of basic numeracy amongst the youth. They may very well be correct. That is not the same as a concern about mathematics.

My solution would be very simple. Isolate the teaching of basic numeracy by identifying the skills and competences that are deemed essential. Make this compulsory and leave mathematics as an optional subject which has to fight its corner alongside other subjects in the curriculum.

Graham Curson teaches mathematics at an 11-18 comprehensive school in Plymouth, Devon, England. He can be reached via e-mail at MugwumpM1@aol.com.

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Last Update: April 9, 1997