If you haven’t read Dickens, you’re not qualified to teach Chemistry!

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Benjamin Franklin. (Often attributed to Albert Einstein who was quoting Franklin)

A few years ago there was a suggestion that the number of novels that Victorian Year 12 English students could be reduced by one. There was an outcry, and the proposal was dropped.

Andrew Bolt was particularly scathing about the idea that students be allowed to study a film or a play, instead of a novel, and he devoted a whole article to how we would be losing our culture if the study of Shakespeare was no longer mandated in Year 12 English. I sent him a comment – which he never published, of course – where I pointed out that Shakespeare had only ever been compulsory in Year 12 Literature, and that was several years ago. And where I made the rather important point that Shakepeare actually wrote plays and sonnetts, not novels.

Whether not studying Dickens and the Classics actually destroys civilisation as we know it, however, is a debate for another time. I just bring this up because the Bolt example is fairly typical of what happens when non-educators start talking about the education system. It’s not that I don’t think that they have a right to make input, it’s just that their input needs to be balanced against what actually happens in schools, and what anyone with any experience in education can predict about particular proposals. Take, the recent NSW suggestion to make Maths compulsory in Year 12.

Ok, I’m sure that the first reaction of a large number of people is that we need to improve our Maths skills, so this is a damn fine idea. So before we continue, I’d like to ask a simple question.

maths question

Right. I’ve just divided you into two classes of people. There are those, who are can answer that and those who can’t.

If you can, I suspect you probably think that compulsory maths is a good idea. If you can’t, you’re probably thinking either it isn’t a good idea, or why are you asking me for, I’m not going to do Year 12?

To those who can answer, I would like to say that I value your opinion, and I’ll respect it even more, if you spend six weeks trying to explain trigonometry to the kids who wanted to drop Maths at the end of Year 10.

The trouble with suggestions such as making Maths compulsory to the end of Year 12 is that very little thought is given to the actuality of doing something like this. Granted, there are a number of students who lack numeracy skills when they leave school, but another year or two of Maths isn’t going to improve them, unless there’s a totally different approach to the one that failed to give them adequate numeracy skills in the eleven years of school that they’d already completed.

While I was a teacher, I spent a number of years where I was responsible for students making a change to the subjects studied at senior level. Every year towards the end of first semester, I would have at least one conversation that went something like this:

“I want to drop Maths and pick up something else?”

“Why?”

“I’m failing miserably. I’ve never been any good at Maths.”

“Then why did you pick it?”

“My parents thought I should keep my options open.”

At this point I was always tempted to ask how parents thought that failing Maths at Year 11 was keeping one’s options open. Or did they think that suddenly the student would decide that a career as an engineer was suddenly a better option than one of the areas where this student was actually demonstrating a skill. (As an aside, I actually remember a parent ringing me when their son had just dropped Business Management. “English, Music, Drama? Where’s the potential career in that?” Given that the father HAD signed the permission form for the change of subject, I don’t know what he wanted me to say. Anyway, every time I read an article  his son or see the son on TV, I think that he seems to have worked out a better career path than if he’d done Accounting, Business Management and Maths. We’re not all the same!)

So how exposing these kids to another year or two of maths is expected to improve the numeracy skills of the nation is meant to work, I don’t know. The vast majority of students who are a competent at Maths continue with it. In my entire teaching career, I never heard any kid say that they wished they’d continued with their maths, but I heard plenty say that they didn’t know why they did.

As for the logistics…

How, when they already have a shortage of maths teachers, do they intend to staff the extra classes?

But I guess problems with numeracy isn’t just limited to the general population!