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Maths ‘reformists’ keep shooting for the moon, missing the mark and messing with kids’ heads


Michael Workman is a retired educator who was most recently principal of St John’s Preparatory School and before that, principal of Carmel Primary. He has an M.Ed (Curriculum Theory, Planning, Development and Contemporary Issues in Curriculum Evaluation) from the former University of Natal.

For decades, children and teachers have been used as maths guinea pigs. I cannot think of any other discipline that has been abused as much as this subject. Numerous surveys place maths as a child’s most hated subject worldwide – but there is no reason it should be so intensely disliked.

I have heard so many theories about maths that I don’t know where I stand anymore. At school we learnt that there were two definite hemispheres in the brain, one side was for mathematical thinking and the other for creative activity.

Chris Smith, the “Naked Scientist”, an academic at Cambridge University for whom I have the greatest respect, is well supported by his colleagues when he asserts that there are two hemispheres, but maths and creativity are drawn from many parts of the brain and dominance of the left half over the other half is a myth. Great!

Now, what about all those children who have for years been doing left- or right-brain activities to improve their maths ability or creativity? If this assertion is correct, and I have no doubt that it is, then it can be assumed that all children should be able to do maths. Inasmuch as it seems we are all born with the same brain but are all wired differently, with no dominance by left or right hemispheres, it can be argued that the evidence of this has created havoc within the teaching fraternity because maths is continually undergoing reform based on different maths theories.

Regrettably, children and teachers have been used as guinea pigs in schools for decades, especially with regard to maths. I cannot think of any other discipline that has been abused as much as this subject. Numerous surveys place maths as a child’s most hated subject worldwide – but there is no reason it should be so intensely disliked.                                           

During the space race to see which world power would land the first human on the moon, the US dramatically changed the whole epistemology of how maths and science were taught, the rationale being they would produce more young scientists and mathematicians, thus increasing their chances of putting the first man on the moon. All schools in America were mandated to teach maths and science using behavioural objectives.

STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) was also introduced for the first time (considering it has only just reached the shores of South Africa recently, it’s not surprising that this country lags behind so badly in education). In a short time, behavioural objectives were used all over the world. The ideology underpinning behavioural objectives gave the US plenty of opportunity to indoctrinate its students into the “American way of life”.

After a short while, there were new theories discovered or created by well-known proponents of social constructivism such as John Dewey, David Ekland and the “father” of social construction, Lev Vygotsky, that totally conflicted with behavioural objectives.

The theory underpinning social constructivism is based on the premise that individuals are active participants in the creation of their own knowledge. Constructivism was also the work of Jean Piaget (1896–1980) who identified with the theory of cognitive development. Piaget focused on how humans make meaning in relation to the interaction between their experiences and their ideas.

Basically, he asserts that the difference between the two underlying theories is that behavioural objectives assume that the teacher is the fount of all knowledge, which he/she transmits to his/her students. Constructivism, however, is based on children creating their own knowledge through the interaction of others, and the teacher role is one of facilitation.

These two concepts of how maths knowledge is formed have been a bone of contention for many years. It almost appears that maths is the most picked-on subject of all. As such, it is most likely that maths has the highest status of all subjects, placing enormous stress on teachers, students and parents.

Reform movements in maths are not helping either, in that maths is continually changing, with children having to adapt to new learning styles while teachers are endeavouring to understand completely new teaching strategies. Maths models such as “new maths” lasted a few years in America and failed dismally.

There have been numerous other reform movements, most of which only hinder rather than advance children’s conceptual understanding. Inasmuch as maths is highly contextual, it should be left to schools to develop their own approach to the subject, because at the moment it seems reform for reform’s sake is just creating a total dislike for maths no matter which hemisphere of the brain concepts are drawn from.

More children would enjoy the merits of maths if those responsible for its development would stay grounded for a while. DM


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