TEACHER AND THE MACHINE- Charity begins at home

Posted by KK on Nov 30, 2015

The ability to learn a new skill and be able to retain it depends on a number of factors, among which, is the way the said skill is taught in the first place, which would then determine whether the skill is understood and the knowledge is grasped. This demands time. It’s just like learning to ride a bike. One is required to get on it and peddle away with a few verbal instructions, with the teacher steadying the bike on at times, which usually includes several fall-offs, and then more trials. It’s unheard of that one learns to ride by watching youtube videos or consulting riding instructions from a textbook. The same applies to teaching or learning of mathematics or any other subject, for that matter. When newly qualified mathematics teachers take up classes, definitely their utmost desire is to teach mathematics relationally and using inquiry methods proposed by Andrew Blair. As time goes they realise that the enormity of content that is required to be covered by the imposed national curriculum would not allow them to continue with this way of teaching. That is when short-cuts start creeping in.

Last week, on my way out at the Shanghai teaching seminar, I had an opportunity to ask one of the Shanghai teachers what he thinks about the UK mathematics curriculum compared to theirs. His response hinted one thing, that our mathematics curriculum is quite exhaustive and covers a lot of topics and concepts in comparison. He said some of those concepts should have either been covered in earlier classes or are for upper classes. Unfortunately we did not discuss much. 

Therefore, is it possible that the system in place does not give our teachers enough time to develop proper ways of teaching, which are mostly abandoned and lost before they are fully developed due to time pressures? Could some of these problems in mathematics teaching be due to lack of open enquiry culture among students in classrooms since it is incompatible with our national curriculum? (Borasi 1992-202).

The lack of time at a teachers’ disposal and the unfortunate loss of skills to teach relationally using inquiry methods, which develops subject understanding and enables the learner to grasp the necessary mathematical concepts, has created a breeding ground for online teaching tools like Khan Academy and the like. Otherwise, with proper understanding of the underlying mathematical concepts and methods, students would be expected to grasp and retain everything that is learnt in a classroom. Hence online tools like Khan Academy, My Maths and so on should be treated as such, not an end to the means.

Micheal Pershan compared the American way of teaching to a Japanese classroom. One thing that we should all appreciate is that what is common among East Asian countries and cultures is the respect that their elders and teachers demand and hold in society. In most circumstances East Asian children or students are expected to listen and behave properly in the midst of their elders and/or teachers. Therefore, it may not be too far fetched to deduce that a conducive learning environment coupled with ample time to teach inquiringly and relationally, by teachers who are experienced in that way of teaching, may account for the above-average performances in mathematics year after year. The PISA 2012 Survey which assessed the competencies of 15 year olds in reading, mathematics and science (with focus on mathematics) in 65 countries, found that 8 Asian states were among the top 10, with Turkey and Poland (non-Asian countries) on 7th and 10th, respectively. That would not only be possible due to the teaching methods they employ. Other factors could also be in play.



  1. Senay
    2 December 2015

    You have got lots of good ideas here KK. The cultural point you make is important. Teachers in other cultures do not have to battle (or so it seems) to create order and calm in the classroom in the same way that a British teacher does. I wonder where this respect comes from? At the risk of being nostalgic maybe this country used to be the same in previous generations?

    I wonder what the other factors you refer to at the end could be?

  2. Dom
    6 December 2015

    KK, I absolutely agree with you when you say that, the success of the countries that are ranked high in mathematics cannot be just explained by the teaching method of their teachers. There are other factors that play a big role such as culture. For instance, if I can link this to my experience as a student, I remember that most of the time, we were discouraged to help each other. We were actually told that, by helping each other, we were not doing any good, as we had to learn to do everything by ourselves. On the contrary, I have noticed that, if a student in China is really struggling with some concept, the other classmates would be normally expected to step in and help.

  3. pepsmccrea
    7 December 2015

    Interesting analogy with riding a bike – it is helpful in providing insight into a complex situation. It would be even better if you also looked at where the analogy breaks down.

    Lovely to hear you share your discussion with the Shanghai teacher, and how this links with inquiry ideas.

    Agree with you that cultural factors are significant. Keep up the good writing!

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