Monday, October 15, 2007

Problem with maths - maths teachers

I suggested in my last post that algebra does more harm than good in teaching maths but there's another factor at work - maths teachers.

1. Maths needs to be enlivened by better than average teaching.
2. Maths teachers tend to be weak on social and communications skills.
3. Good mathematicians tend to do things other than teaching.

'Maths is boring' is the usual summation by kids at school. It's also the experience of most of us who went to school.

Maths graduates and specialists tend not to be great communicators, and if a subject that is admittedly as dry as maths is to be taught well should we consider using people who are high on communications skills and moderate on maths.

On top of this the subject can be enlivened by the use of good e-learning. Look at the success of Nintendo's Brain training - mostly simple arithmetic. people actually pay £100 for a console then £20 upwards for this simple piece of software that related maths to your life (brain age) - and its fun. The MyMaths site and Bitesize are also pretty good, better than much teaching I'm sure. Yet how much of this stuff is even known by teachers, never mind used.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Numeracy - counts for little

Is all this fuss around numeracy really warranted? I met a trainer in a government department who had to put his staff through a Level 2 numeracy test. He was surprised to find that many failed - as he regards them as good at their jobs.
The claim is that 13.5 million people are 'stressed out' by their poor numeracy. But when did you last hear anyone tell you that they're 'totally stressed about my algebra skills'. The second claim is that 15.1 million have poor numeracy skills (equivalent of G or below at GCSE). This made me think.
Is it right that the standard here is the Maths GCSE. I have known lots of happy, successful people who handle money and numbers and bets who have no GCSE in Maths.


While I accept that much of the 'number' content in the national Curriculum is sound, even here, knowing about prime numbers, square and cube roots etc seems remotely useful.

Shape and space

OK, working out the area of a rectangle I get - we all have to buy carpets and paint etc. But trigonometry? The volume of a sphere? Vectors? Transformations? It's mostly useless, except for a small minority of people.

Handling data

Some of this is useful but not all. Have you ever seen a stem or leaf table? Simple probability is fine - but calculating mutually exclusive events? It's over-engineered.


This is where it all goes wrong. Here's a quote from Roger Schank who looked into the dodgy history of why algebra became so embedded in curricula, "I'm a math major and a computer science professor, and algebra has never come up in my life, maybe it has in yours." I'd argue that little or nothing in algebra is useful for the vast majority of people in work. In fact it is so conceptually difficult and of such little practical use that most of us who master it forget it soon after we've passed the exam. When was the last time you used a simultaneous linear or quadratic equation?

Algebra is bad for our kids
Even worse, could algebra be damaging our kids approach t maths? I suspect that algebra is the single most damaging cause of poor numeracy. As soon as kids face this useless challenge they are turned off the subject. It kills any interest in maths stone dead. They instinctively kow that it's useless knowledge.

What counts can't always be counted
In truth we need a simple standard in the 'real world' application of maths that is free from the Maths GCSE. Simple mastery of arithemetic, calculating areas, percentages and reading graphs would do. We need to produce adults who love to learn, not adults who avoid all learning because it reminds them of the horrors of school and algebra.

Talent management - rum business

I think we need an import ban on flaky HR ideas from the US. Talent Management is the latest HR bandwagons. Once the 'Leadership Training' bandwagon had run its course, its wheels stuck in the deep mud of fashionable indifference, HR had to find another rickety old vehicle to justify increasing scepticism about their usefulness.

Talent Management (really just Leadership in new clothes) is yet another reason for senior managers to spend oodles of cash on themselves . And don't think for one moment that this is an inclusive, company-wide scheme that involves ALL employees. It's really a filtering process for joining the Executive Club. Never trust those guys you see turn up to meetings, or at the airport, with their little Platinum, Gold or Silver 'Exec Club' tags hanging conspicuously on the outside of their combination-lock briefcases. They're in the same camp as those who wear mobiles on their belts or blazers with flat gold buttons on the cuffs.

If Talent Management really was meritocratic, then boards would advertise openly for members (they don't - in the UK it's mostly word-of mouth) and there would be transparency from top to bottom in recruitment, rewards and promotion. The city and UK senior management is full of old duffers, still wearing their broad diagonally striped school ties (I personally think this smacks of public school pederasty).

If Talent Management does have a role it would be to clear out people who are stuck in jobs they saw as temporary when they joined, and to move people on in terms of aspirations. All too often it's about keeping and not losing people. I like the LearnDirect idea of an independent Advice service advertised on TV that makes people think about their aspirations.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Complaince killing training

Attended an small but excellent think-tank meeting on the future of learning in Government. It was sobering to hear how training departments are now so swamped by compliance training that little else is being done. We're so busy obsessing about the potential of employees to sexually harass, racially abuse, be biased on gender, discriminate on disability and negative on age, that they've little time to learn anything else.

How did it come to this? The training is not evaluated, and when large academic studies are done, they show no, or counterproductive, effects (Dobbins, Harvard). Yet, HR departments are compliant in this conspiracy. They willingly deliver bucket-loads of this stuff. Why? because it's easy. The driver is NOT learning or people development, it's 'fear'. It's a crude attempt to reduce risk by delivering crude courses, measured only by bums on seats, that do nothing more than protect organisations against their employees.

It's boring, people don't like it and it doesn't work. How bad can it get before we stop this madness?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Gave two talks on skills/education at the Conservative Party Conference (not my natural habitat). Not surprised that all parties have finally dumped Blackpool as a venue - it's the armpit of Britain, all fast food, barn-sized drinking parlours and dilapidated B&Bs.

Two-brains Willetts

First talk was with David Willetts, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Universities and Skills, around Leitch. The bottom line is that business and education/training have been drifting apart for years. Business wants quick solutions that meet their needs and don't have much time for the vast array of qualifications and agencies in the market. They're desperate for a system that's quicker, simpler and with less entities. More is less. Education and training, on the other hand, is obsessed with qualifications and the creation of entities. They're like two sides shouting at each other with megaphones across a vast chasm.

Back to school with Michael Gove
I had a spat with Michael Gove mid-afternoon. His example of how children need more maths/science was, and I quote, "In order to understand how electrons orbit around the nucleus children need to understand the Copernican system of planets rotating around stars". I urged him to get another example, as "the quantum positioning of electrons has nothing to do with the Copernican gravitational model". He was none too pleased and did a lot of finger wagging. He's all discipline, standards and back to basics. By the way Michael check the spelling on your home page - it's awful

Final talk
The final session was excellent. There was a great talk on the 'myth' of science/engineering graduates. John Hayes, the Shadow Minister for Skills was sound on the need for a proper careers and advice service but it was John Morton, CEO of the ETB that astonished us with some raw stats. We produce 17000 engineers a year and the number has been stable for 15 years. 50% of these never go near engineering as the starting salary is pretty low (barely keeping up with inflation). The failure is in the FE sector, where we don't produce enough trained technicians. In the last 3 years these trainees have dropped by 26%. He saw the problems as lying elsewhere in our lack of innovation, entrepreneurship and our failure to celebrate success.