Sunday, November 19, 2006

Is anyone counting?

Some more thoughts, then, on the whole "I don't know, kids nowadays, they can't even add up" business.

I'm not entirely disagreeing with these sentiments, but what frustrates me is that I know - know, dammit! - that the kids in front of me nowadays can actually do more in the way of mental arithmetic, or simply without a calculator, than they could when first I started teaching.

Y'see, when first I hit the chalkface, the exams in maths at school could all be done without a calculator. Now of course we did still teach pupils the basics of arithmetic, but they quickly worked out that if they were allowed to ue a calculator come the actual exam, they were going to darned well use the calculator in class too. We did what we could to stop them but, being mathematicians, we had to admire a grasp of simple logic. Naturally enough, quite a few pupils then started using the calculator for everything: why work out 6 times 9 yourself when the calculator will guarantee the right answer? (And - still the case today - why bother even considering if the answer seems reasonable? Would the calculator ever lie?) So it came as no small wonder that we were turning out a nation of somewhat less than numerate children back in the nineties.

Ah, but then. Then someone somewhere decided the Thing To Do was to give pupils exams which had to be done in two parts: one with our electronic chum, one without. Hurrah! we cried, and set about teaching percentages, fractions etc etc with renewed vim and vigour. All seemed well. All was well. I remember teaching a lower ability class in S3 with an S6 prefect helping out, and I well remember the prefect telling me that she didn't really know how to do half of the stuff these less able pupils were managing. Result!

So, dear general public, rest assured that we do teach tables; that the kids in class do know how to do a fair bit of what "we" used to be able to do standing on our heads.


Nevertheless, I have to agree, pupils emerging out into the world of work nowadays simply are less numerate. And I'm really not sure there's much we can do about it.


Well, as I've mentioned before, in this electronic age, there's simply little or no opportunity for pupils to use or practise these skills out in The Real World. I mean, when last did you seriously - seriously - have to add up some numbers, or do a long multiplication, or add (multiply??) fractions? These kids can do the arithmetic well enough to pass exams, but the skills then atrophy through misuse.

Like it or not most of us rely on electronic aids more than we'd care to admit. Those of us Of A Certain Age do still have reasonably high levels of numeracy, but only because (a) it was about all we ever did in school for the first seven years and (b) we did have to use these skills to a certain extent in everyday life.

Those days are gone.

It would be nice to think that this then frees us up more to concentrate on less mundane skills in maths - on more reasoning, for example - but it may well be that the ability to reason follows the ability to execute the basics with confidence.

To put it another way, we're screwed.

Or maybe not. Does all this matter in the larger scheme of things? And were we really so good at arithemtic back in the day? (Take written English for comparison: OK, so a lot of kids nowadays can't spell or use basic grammar, but reading other teachers' reports I do wonder if 'twas ever thus.)



Anonymous said...

I am fairly new to teaching and I have to admit that I am from the generation of if you have a calculator why work it out in your head and I find I have to tell myself to do a calculation in my head every time I go for my calculator.

Could this become a problem if the new wave of teachers coming into teacinhg are also reliant on calculators to do basic calculations?

maths teacher said...

An interesting question... potentially yes, but you will presumably be teaching students mental mathematics and pencil and paper methods, so you should find that your own skills get up to speed pretty quickly and remain there. As I said, we forget if we're not using these skills, but as a teacher you'll be using them all the time.

The biggie is being able to have a "feel" for whether or not a calculation is correct, particularly if done on a calculator. This is quite a high-level skill, though some seem to think it's pretty easy. Having seen my students' blind faith in the calculator, I'm not so sure!