Monday, 23 May 2011

Primary Maths; why everyone's illiterate.

The maths curriculum in this country is shocking really, as a child I realised that between the age of six and the age of twelve the algebra British children are presented with progresses from equations like “4 + ? = 10” or “2 × ? = 6” to the essentially equivalent problems such as “4+x=10” and “2x=6” among others which involve slightly larger numbers for the more able children such as “14x=196” or possibly the odd fraction. The essence of the maths is exactly the same with the only difference being the introduction of letters when we reach secondary school. This terrifies people; ‘algebra’ is so much scarier than simple ‘sums’, but if you rub out the ‘x’ and put a question mark in its place you’ll find yourself doing the same problems you were doing five years earlier in primary school.
There is absolutely no need for this, giving a five-year-old “4+x=10” will make no difference to giving him “4+_=10” as many five-year-olds are given all the time. An underscore, empty box or a question mark is conceptually the same as an x or y but mathematical illiteracy and dread prevails, the mention of words like ‘algebra’ and ‘calculus’ send a shiver down the spine of the average adult, including primary school teachers. They must be shown from a very young age that these words are not to be feared and that being able to recognise that an ‘x’ represents an unknown quantity is as basic as knowing the alphabet and being able to recognise an integral, a Fourier series or a Taylor expansion is analogous to recognising a simile, oxymoron or metaphor.
C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures is as true today as it ever was but when papers like the Guardian and popular figures like Professor Brian Cox bring science to masses the border line between the two camps is somewhat shifted and blurred. We have the bizarre situation where everyone you see in the street is an expert on everything from the wonders of the Universe to climate change and hadron colliders but barely one percent of them could tell you the cosine rule, the science camp has very much extended its reach to fully incorporate the other culture but at the same time relegated mathematics to its own lonely fate with many actual scientists wondering around in the middle.
Maths is not like science, it is a language that has to be taught from a young age, just like Chinese or French. The numbers, symbols and operators are the letters, the equations are the sentences and the  theorems, lemmas and implications are the tools, much like the linguistic tools in a novelist’s tool box it is not necessary for the public to use them, just to understand them is quite enough.

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