Why?

This is the fear

This is the dread

These are the contents of my head       (from Annie Lennox’s ‘Why‘)

The last few weeks have been a bit brutal. Administrative and managerial tasks at work – the ones that have immediate demands on one’s attention – have meant that there has been little time for the stuff I really enjoy doing. Less Sisyphus and more Orpheus is needed in my life. I get so tired of those repetitive administrative tasks that come around every year in a teacher’s life. Some days it really does seem quite pointless and lacking in meaning to work so hard pushing that wretched ball up the hill. Some people seem to think pushing the ball is the most important thing in a school. One has to swallow the response one would love to give: “Why does this matter so much?” Of course, a lot of this is important to the running of a school, but I get frustrated when administrative and management issues seem to take on prioritised importance compared to other things such as teaching and learning. We may think in generalities and live in detail…I’m afraid that some live for detail or as detail!

“There is no growth except in the fulfilment of obligations”

“One must command from each what each can perform”

(Quotes from de Saint-Exupery’s Flight to Arras and The Little Prince)

Why do people who take on positions of responsibility feel almost obligated to sublimate their own needs for those of others? Is this expected of them? Why do I feel so constrained and restricted by the above quotes? Is it because of the implied setting of some form of limitation?

And…a final why…following on from the current debate raging in the letters page of the Education Age of recent weeks…Why do we teach, for example, quadratic equations and simultaneous equations to students doing compulsory mathematics if the majority of our students never use them again once leaving school?

A colleague of mine has had obvious delight (you can tell by his jaunty use of the highlighter pen to direct my attention) in putting these letters into my pigeon hole each Monday. We, as mathematical educators, have to take some blame for this negativity towards our subject. Mathematics, as a discipline, has had its place in the curriculum justified by its utility for some time. It has been described as the ‘servant’ of the sciences. People have cited “being able to work out the change or how much you save with a 20% off sale” when shopping as reason enough for a mathematics education. Teachers have, in answer to the ubiquitous question “When are we ever going to use this?”, said, when studying trigonometry, “When you want to find out the height of that tree”.

Let me say, hand on heart, that the majority of the content of what is taught in secondary school mathematics is useless for ‘everyday life’. No, you are not probably ever going to have to solve a quadratic equation when ‘down the street’ (where an awful lot of people seem to go in these letters). One will not regularly be called upon to estimate the height of an overhead plane using the angle of elevation or find the angle with a transversal between two parallel lines when crossing the parallel tram tracks. (One is often not called upon to recite Shakespeare or give the gross national product of some small African country or conjugate verbs whilst ‘down the street’ either, but maths seems to be held to a different standard to other subjects…probably due to more affective concerns… those who voice their outrage often ‘suffered’ in mathematics when they were themselves students)

This is one of the problems we will encounter if we continue to justify mathematics via its content (or any subject through its content). Mathematics is about ideas. The content is the vehicle through which we teach these ideas. Teach factorisation and expansion in isolation from the ideas they embody and students will become frustrated and disengaged. However, in order to teach the discipline in ways that emphasise these ideas and the thinking that is concomitant with them, we, as teachers, need to ensure that we know what those ideas are. I actually don’t think some teachers of mathematics know why they are teaching what they are; apart from a ‘ladder of content’ reason such as ‘we need to do it so they know it before calculus’.

Why do you teach mathematics? What do you teach your classes and in what order and with what emphasis? Why

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About Linda

I have been involved in secondary mathematics education in Victoria, Australia for over 25 years.
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