Why are we teaching mathematics this way ?

Posted by Raj, Uncategorized on Oct 19, 2015


Sir Ken Robinson in his lecture and Jo Boaler in her book, the elephant in the classroom, 1984 discuss why we have been teaching maths in schools as we do, and suggest why it may not be working.

Ken Robinson points out the school education system in its current form was devised just before the middle of the 19th century, where even then its merits were debated. There are political elements who suggest we should improve standards, but as he quite rightly points out, ‘who would want standards to go down.’ It seems everyone is seeking to reform the system based on two key factors:

  • Economics
  • Culture

Quite how schools are expected to be able to devise a curriculum that is best suited for the country, when even the major economists get their predictions spectacularly wrong is open to question. And if the system is to account for the culture of a country, it is not necessarily going to attract the interests of the students. Since its creation it has been modelled, in many ways similar to how industries create products; students may as well have a stamp as to when they were created. He points out that the aesthetic nature of maths should be taken into consideration to enable deeper understanding and engagement in the subject. I concur with his belief that the model for the schools education system should be reformed to reflect the different era we are currently in, in told system is outmoded.

In my experience, again and again, students question the need for mathematics or show indifference towards the subject. For some reason it is accepted that to say you are no good at maths is both considered natural and tolerable. Whilst it is a common theme with less able students to have a reason to dismiss maths as unimportant or to find reasons to dislike it, and it carries over to other subjects, even some students who are not the weakest can be heard to moan about the subject. Is it because it is difficult or is it because of the way it is taught. Or are there other elements at play, such as the curriculum. I would say all of the above.

Jo Boaler provides an insight as to why students can be found to disengage from the learning maths. They are not not shown enough interesting ideas where maths can come into play. The golden ratio 1.618 can be found in nature and was derived by a mathematician, Fibonacci.

In my opinion there are many reasons why maths should be the favourite for many students. How often do you see a child/adult play a difficult game on and Xbox or cry out in frustration at crashing out on a car racing game or when they die in a shoot-em-up or the just can’t get through to the next level on some skills test game. You will never here them say, I give up, I’m never going to be good on the Xbox. As fast as they can hit the restart button, they will. And persevere for days until they can beat or match there rivals. In some cases, the same people may not give maths that amount of respect. It is not as important.

Take the example of Fermat’s last theorem, as mentioned in Jo Boaler’s book, for 350 years the best mathematicians could not come up with a proof until Andrew Wiles in 1994 finally succeeded. Andrew Wiles started thinking about it from the age of 10 in some ways he persevered in the same way games players do.


  1. pepsmccrea
    26 October 2015

    Superb first thinkpiece. You have engaged with both articles, and tried to ‘make sense’ of them, not just accepts the ideas they are proposing.

    You ask some excellent questions and make some helpful connections between the articles. In future thinkpieces it might be useful to try to identify ‘key points’ that you want to get across.

  2. Dom
    8 November 2015

    Raj, I did enjoy reading your post. I agree with you that it has become tolerable for students to say that they do not understand maths. Sometimes, it also seems fashionable. I am afraid that, in this way, even the most brilliant students will end up giving up on it for fear of being rejected by their peers.
    I like the part of your post about playing video games. Is there any way maths could be devised as a successful video game?

  3. asreall
    29 December 2015

    I found your essay a very enjoyable read. I agreed with everything you’ve said, in my experience a high number of pupils have the attitude that they just cannot ‘do maths’. What I think would be interesting is to find out how you think we can overcome this problem? Also if there is a way in which more technology in the classroom would enhance the pupils learning and their overall interest and then their understanding of maths.

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