A Brave New World………Maybe?

Posted by Alison W on Mar 1, 2016

What a difference a week makes!! I really enjoyed both Dan Meyer’s and Richard Skemp’s pieces, both seemed to be much more solution driven than the previous articles and I found myself agreeing with much of what was said.
It seems obvious in hindsight that we consider what we are teaching and why before we look at how we are teaching it. Dan Meyer spoke about engaging our children in conversation, in the process of formulating a problem and then talking about possible outcomes. An intuitive approach that should not intimidate. This struck me as a profound and revolutionary idea, isn’t it apparent that something, anything in fact, that intimidates us is abhorrent to us? We are naturally hesitant to engage in something that we find daunting, too hard or over-complicated, especially when there is no apparent worth or benefit to tackling it.
At this point I wonder whether this is perhaps the crux of the matter and if it is what exactly can we do to overturn these ideas imbedded within many individuals’ preconceptions about mathematics?
A complete overhaul of the syllabus seems impractical, and as much as I appreciate and like Meyer’s rationale I can see the impracticalities involved in demonstrating this level of understanding outside a controlled environment, which leads quite nicely into the article by Skemp.
Skemp considers the difference between relational and instrumental understanding and arguably that these two states of understanding are conceivably not completely mutually exclusive. Again I found myself agreeing to what I consider a very perceptive argument. However from my experience it seems that individuals enjoy the odd rule or two. Rules quite often give the sense of order and expectation at times when nothing else seems to be forthcoming or apparent. For example why do we count the seconds between a flash of lightening and the crash of thunder? It’s not because it really allows us to estimate how far away the storm is but it does give us a sense of reassurance and control.
It is with this in mind, and also the fact that (unfortunately) instrumental learning is easier to assess, that I think that there has to be a place for it within the syllabus. However I also believe that this must be tempered, we shouldn’t allow an over reliance on these teaching methods. A difficult balance given society’s reliance on standardised testing as a measure of ability and successful teaching methods being a reflection of these successes.
However, I also believe it is extremely important that we help develop free thinkers and talented problem solvers and we can only do this more effectively through relational understanding creating a learning environment that inspires innovation and perseverance. It is our gift to future generations and ultimately our gift to ourselves.


  1. Ray
    6 March 2016

    I agree with your point about making maths less intimidating and in conveying why something is being taught. I also like the end point that inspiring at least some of our future students is something that we will find very rewarding.

  2. Havva
    7 March 2016

    Hi Alison, i really enjoyed what you had to say, like Ray, I particularly liked the final paragraph where you mention ‘free thinkers’, which I believe is essential for future generations.

  3. pball1
    8 March 2016

    Interesting that you mention the place instrumental learning has in maths in order for the subject to be assessed perhaps a little more easier, and that could bring in the fresh debate of whether our methods of assessment are sufficient or indeed useful. For me an instrumental method is more a case of remembering, and it was only a short time ago that formulae were included within the examination pack so that an emphasis was placed more on the understanding, Some of the formulae are again now omitted so there was again a requirement to learn such formulae and coupled with the reduction in coursework strikes me as very much a backward step and a move back towards instrumental methods.

  4. ajf29
    8 March 2016

    Like yourself I agree with nearly all the points in both pieces. You do however state that a complete overhaul is impractical but don’t you think without a revolutionary change-a new way of teaching maths- we will still be having this debate in years to come?

  5. pepsmccrea
    8 March 2016

    Lots of strong ideas and analysis going on here. You have clearly embraced the ideas presented, but are not naive to their limitations. Important acknowledgement of the role that assessment plays in influencing teaching. Keep up the good writing!

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