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EDITIONS
 Sunday, 25 August, 2002, 23:40 GMT 00:40 UK
Firing interest in maths lessons
calculator
Many students think maths is not for them
As the number of students sitting A-level maths declines, some teachers argue a more creative approach to maths lessons might get more youngsters interested in the subject.

At school, Damien Walker had always been labelled as strictly an arts man.

And at the age of 32, he still was convinced he was terrible at mathematics and physics.

That was until he picked up an old copy of In Search of Schrodinger's Cat by John Gribbin, at a second-hand shop in Greenwich, London.

The school syllabus just does not allow teachers to teach much more than straightforward numeracy

Alan Burns, maths teacher
"I couldn't believe it, this was the most fascinating book I had ever read. And it had equations and numbers in it. And most surprising of all, it actually made sense.

"When I finished I really felt like I had missed out at school. Maths was really interesting!"

Alan Burns, a secondary school maths teacher in London, said: "This is such a common story and it makes me tear my hair out.

"The school syllabus just does not allow teachers to teach much more than straightforward numeracy and then more advanced maths to those students who find arithmetic easy," said Mr Burns.

"And this means a lot of students who could actually be good at complex and abstract maths are never allowed to study the subject if they cannot pass the basic problem-solving skills taught to 12 and 13-year-olds."

Maths philosophy

Mr Burns believes that advanced maths, which he says can be counter-intuitive, does not involve the same skills as arithmetic.

"Understanding advanced maths like imaginary numbers takes a lot more creativity and lateral thinking than working with basic linear arithmetic.

girl counting
Could maths lessons be more creative?
"They are different talents," said Mr Burns.

"So many students leave school with just basic numeracy and believe there is only one kind of linear logic. There isn't. It all depends what mathematical system you are in."

But Mr Burns wants more than just his maths students to be given a taste of calculus and imaginary numbers at a young age.

He wants school children to be given a taste of more far-reaching philosophies, which are currently only taught in some universities.

"What school child leaves school today realising that maths and semiotics are part and parcel of the same universe and that great thinkers of today can sit between both worlds," he said.

"They wouldn't know what semiotics is. School children should be told what knowledge is available to them.

"We are not allowing our children an insight at a young enough age of the fantastic realities in the world.

"Not only are our children's imaginations suffering for it but we are losing students, from subjects like maths, who could actually be really good."

Jargon

However, advanced maths is not the only discipline made to be an exclusive club to keep out the uninitiated.

At a professional level, the language of science and maths is becoming increasingly full of jargon and some scientists say this is to keep out those who are not part of the club.

The journal Nature has published papers on the exclusivity of scientific language and its dominance as a world language, on a par with English.

A consultant editor of Nature, Dr Philip Ball, said: "Science has been growing away from the arts ever since the Renaissance."

This is largely because scientists felt that they needed to free themselves from the constraints of philosophy and religion in the seventeenth century.

However some academics believe that the tide is turning.

"The big picture questions in maths and science are becoming very philosophical once more," said a spokesperson at the Spanish Royal Academy in Madrid.

"Questions like 'where are we going' and 'who are we' need to be answered. This century may see science and maths crossing the historic divide."

But until this happens in earnest, Damien Walker is sticking with his second-hand book store in Greenwich.

"The need for popular science books for us arts people is increasingly necessary," he said.

"Mathematicians, please get scribbling, I've almost finished 'Alan Turing the enigma' by Andrew Hodges."

See also:

13 Aug 02 | Education
12 Aug 02 | Education
02 Jul 01 | Education
15 Aug 02 | Politics
Links to more Education stories are at the foot of the page.


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