Friday, 3 April 2009

Scared of maths?

Yet another survey - this time by the University of Granada - suggesting that symptoms such as nervousness, worry, edginess, tension and mental block are displayed by "most" university under-graduates when asked to do something mathematical. It seems that just under half of men and just over half of women showed these symptoms (don't think that you can call that "most" - but let's not go down that route). But in essence I think the subject is quite interesting.
There was a time, long ago, when mathematics was thought of as an art, when subjects like Geometry and Algebra were studied by fine arts students. Now I suppose we would consider maths to be a kind of science - and that may be to its disadvantage.
When I was a teacher I was always concerned about the standard of maths teaching in Primary schools - where, let's face it - the ground work is done and the pattern set for future learning. The "good" teacher, with a good maths background, would devise problems for children so that they learned the basic principles of maths. A teacher without that maths background would often concentrate on "sums". In my view children either can or can't add, subtract, multiply or divide - if they can then they have learned the technique and can now concentrate on applying it. If they can't then they need to be taught to do so - but not day after day, not being marked, say, six out of ten, and leaving it at that. Problem solving is far more important.
I have lost count of the number of times I have come across less able pupils with little or no skill in mathematics who, after leaving school have ended up on the till in a supermarket. Alright this is computer skill rather than maths skill but it used to give me such pleasure to see them rattling away on the keys in such an expert way.
Something goes wrong with a lot of young people so that suddenly they feel they can't do maths.
A reader of my blog, who shall be nameless, (you know who you are) has a real hang-up about maths. She was asked which was greater - a third or a quarter - immediately her brain seized up and she couldn't work it out. But she is a lover of cake and when I phrased the question -
"Would you rather have a third or a cake or a quarter of a cake?" she could do it immediately.
Mind you other subjects have also taken a battering in the modern curriculum. Some time ago I had cause to get my bank to query an item on my credit card statement. The young man took me into his office and rang through to query the payment, saying that the company who had charged it were in Loughborough - but he pronounced it louborough (ou as in ouch).
After the call I questioned him on it and asked it he knew where Loughborough was - and he said he thought it was a seaside place! (for my US readers - it is in the middle of the country).
He said he had dropped Geography after the first year in Secondary School but it didn't matter anyway because he had satnav.
Does it matter? Is it important that all students feel comfortable with mathematics? or Geography? or any other subject for that matter. University students have exhibited their level of intelligence by getting to University in the first place. So what has gone wrong that there are so many gaps in their learning? And can sat nav take the place of knowing where A,B and C are? Only last week in the paper there was a story of a man who followed the instructions on his sat nav even to the extent of driving down a steep bank and wrecking his car.
Answers on my blog, rather than on a postcard, please.


willow said...

I'll have to confess that numbers don't easily compute in my brain. I can score 500 in Scrabble and whiz through crosswords, but math is entirely another matter.

Jane Moxey said...

Oh that "M" word... gets my knickers in a twist all the time. Give me words over numbers any time! However, I loved algebra at school (in the UK). Rather like a puzzle that needed to be solved. Sums were so horrible to me. I was at school during the days of Pounds Shillings and Pence, and that was enough to make a girl freak! I even remember having to recite times tables and feeling chills. I still don't have enough fingers when it comes to adding up! I have been horrified during my time in the US to find that American kids learn geography in the scantest of ways. One kid thought that Europe was one country, for example!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Boy, now you've opened the door!

Math, geography (even basic directions), history—all are amazingly lacking with so many of today's well-schooled students, and a lot now long since graduated into adulthood.

Not long ago, an accountant friend with a handful of degrees and wealth of high-paying clients, was telling me about his new car and bragging over the gas mileage. He rattled off the figures…which I did in my head and realized right away weren't right. Turns out he didn't know how to correctly divide the gallons of gas used into the number of miles driven!

A lot of people here in Ohio can't name the five bordering states; and many can't tell you whether Indiana is located north, south, east, or west of Ohio.

Shop with some in a grocery and they have no idea whether a 16 ounce can of something costs more or less per ounce than a 24 ounce can. Lots can't figure the square feet in a room in order to buy carpet, or the cubic yards of gravel or mulch necessary to fill a 10X20 foot area 3 inches deep. Forget asking them to balance their checkbooks!

I don't think this is as much a fault of teaching and schools (although, as you point out, they do have a hand) as philosophy—invent a gadget and let the machine take over that part of our brain. Thus we rely on GPS to find our way home, calculators to do math…and computers to manage everything under the sun. We stand on the verge of becoming prisoners to our ignorance.

Sepiru Chris said...

Dear WOG (that just doesn't look like, especially wit the Churchillian tradition of Calais whispering in the remembered background).

I concur completely with you. Math is the Queen of the Arts, she doesn't have to love you, you don't have to love her either, but some respect, which requires knowledge is appropriate. If one wants to be educated, that is.

Anyway, I am hammering away in India, right now, and was just coming to let you know that I alerted more in the world to you, today, over at my e-hut.


Cathy said...

I guess I've been lucky to have had good math teachers growing up and my children have as well. Geography is scarely taught in schools anymore. The teachers may give a week or two here and there but not much more. My ex teaches for a local university in Geography and his students are 9 times out of 10 ignorant of where to find their own state on a map. He tried for several years to make a point of this to the students and finally took our daughters into class with him to take that night's quiz. The girls were 8 and 11 at the time and got all the map questions correct where as the students only had 6 out of 20 pass it! It's sad as these kids were mostly education majors! We keep a subscription to National Geographic in our home and the kids read them. No orders to. They like them. It's all in what you expose them to and how you do the exposing.

Cathy said...

I nee to type a bit slower and proof! Sorry!

Rowan said...

I consider myself useless at maths but that means algebra, geometry and trig as far as I'm concerned, arithmetic I've always been able to do. I have to say that the complete lack of what I would consider basic general knowledge in todays young people just astounds me - and satnav has got a good many people into trouble. I don't consider myself to be much good with maps either but I can use one to plan a route to places and get myself there.

Sal said...

I'm always amazed, when I watch Uni Challenge, at how the students know so little about the counties in our country!
I would put far more emphasis on the teaching of geography and history,if I was in charge!
(And of course,art, craft, music,
drama etc.. as I think we drain children of their creativity...but that's another debate for another time!)

Gramma Ann said...

I never did like anything to do with math. I am the worst at anything closely resembling math.

Arija said...

I find that education standards have really plummeted in our country since the government started calling us the clever country. Children leave shool withour being able to read or write fluently of do simple arithmetic. Entry to universities is often based on equal opportunity rather than aptitude, and logic went out the window about twenty years ago.
Pure maths, i.e. algebra is really a branch of philosophy. At the present time, only applied maths seems to have any status since it is necessaro for bridge building and architecture and the all impostants statistics that our polies could not bamboozle us without. Oh dear, you have got me ranting and raving when I have a house full of mathematitians around me.

EB said...

My father once wryly observed that a pupil could be utterly lost at maths in the classroom, but if they were asked about, say, betting odds, they proved to have a thorough grasp of quite tricky maths!

HelenMHunt said...

When we were children my father, who was a teacher, taught us maths with dried peas on the kitchen table. Worked better than any teaching I received at school!

Heather said...

I can't say I am, or ever was, good at Maths. I failed the 11 plus in Maths, but at secondary school was fortunate enough to have a teacher who demystified the subject for me so that I actually passed the school leaving exam comfortably. When I left school we took exams in all the subjects which I think gave us a better general education than children get today. We didn't have to choose between history and geography, French and German, etc.
I think that every teacher should be trained to make his or her subject interesting and not just employed because of their academic qualifications.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I found it significant that your cake-loving friend was able to grasp fractions when applied to the subject that interested her. If I think of 'maths' I seize up - partly from boredom! But if I have to divide a piece of watercolour paper up, or a flowerbed - suddenly it becomes fascinating and possible!

Cloudia said...

I have discalcula
that's what I think...or was it just bad teaching?

Following a machine's directions off a cliff - welcome to TOMORROW LAND! LOL

Aloha from antiquated Waikiki.
It's on an island - I can't get lost. For your readers who dropped geography: Hawaii is in Africa......

Crafty Green Poet said...

interesting point. I think the forceful introduction of calculators in primary schools as was happening in my childhood and it must be much more so now, manes that people lose the ability to do mental arithmetic, which must have a huge effect on people's confidence around maths.

I think there are huge gaps in people's knowledge and it is a shame.

Dave King said...

I've recently been trying to convince my 19-year old grandson that it does matter if you can't spell, punctuate or generally communicate by writing - other than text, of course. He just cannot see that literary skills are needed in today's world - never mind uni!

Dubois said...

The sat nav thing is interesting. Last week a lorry driver rang up to say he was coming to deliver something to our farm and what time did we close. Of course farms dont close but we do like to have some time to ourselves in evening. I asked him where he was and he said he couldnt say. I interrogated him further, like what road was he on, what town had he just come through etc and his answer was that he was "coming by sat nav" as if that explained everything. He eventually told me what road he was on but couldnt say whether he was travelling north or south and what towns he had come through. I gave up and he duly arrived a couple of hours later.

Teresa said...

Math used to be my most feared subject in school. Mind you, it didn't help that one of my math teachers was a female reincarnation of Attila the Hun who forced her hapless victims to the chalk board, handed us the chalk and commanded, in stentorian voice, "SOLVE THE PROBLEM." Horrors! I felt like I was walking to the guillotine when I headed for the chalkboard. Thankfully, in later years during college I was lucky enough to get an instructor who gave me a new outlook on math (something along the lines of your "third or quarter of a cake" approach) and discovered, to my surprise, that algebra has a beauty all of its own... and that you can apply algebraic problem solving skills to other problems in life besides math - which makes a good point for acquiring those skills even with all of today's easy technology that allows you to pretty much put your brain on hold.

Okay, I'm climbing down off the soapbox now. Sorry this is so long... math is one of those subjects that really gets me going!

Elizabeth said...

Dear Pat
I tagged you today but please don't bother if too boring or not your thing.

I sort of like adding things up it was just sines and cosines which got me!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Gosh! a lot of you seem to have a real hang-up about maths. The reader of my blog who I said had to use the cake analogy in order to solve fractions, has send me an e mail (she is not a blogger herself) to say that she still uses the cake method to solve any simple fraction she has to deal with.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Prisoners in our ignorance, Scribe - I like that! It is quite comforting in a way to find that the same thing is happening all over the world. When I was a child the Atlas was always on the table, so we could look up anywhere.

The Weaver of Grass said...

I do love when I hit upon a blog which makes my readers get on their soapboxes - thank you all so much for joining in the discussion - we seem to be all agreed on the subject - is that because we are all around the same age (apologies if there is anyone out there under 30!)?

Jane Moxey said...

Did you notice that the US term for the dreaded M word is Math and that in the UK its Maths? Doesn't make much difference whether the word is singular or plural, it seems that many people do indeed have a tad of phobia about it!

Derrick said...

Hello Weaver,

I'm sure we would all accept that each of us has different strengths and we will follow those subjects in preference to others. As timetable programming also sets subjects against one another it can be difficult to acquire more than a general background in some subjects. But, as you say, it is also very important how a subject is taught. If some people think that history is about having to remember lots of dates or the name of every monarch, it can put them off. Part of me can understand, for example, why we still have a shortage of those who follow the sciences.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

It's sad to me that people no longer seem to know how to make change. They have to rely on the computer to tell them how much to return to you. I am much more of a word person than a number person, but when simple calculations such as making change or figuring out recipe conversions are losing respect...I worry a bit.