You can dance if you want to

For clarity, I’m not a “Sir Ken Robinson said the word ‘creativity’ without defining it to my exact requirements, so he needs to die at the stake” sort of person. Anyone who wants to take the time to discuss education and to laud the benefits of a state education is ok by me. Nothing anyone ever says is always going to be agreed with by everyone, nor is it always going to be the provable (or disprovable) truth.

Having said that, this morning he really pee’d me off. In an extract (context klaxon) from a forthcoming BBC Radio 4 series on education he said:

When you say that we use mathematics everyday actually we really don’t. A lot of the mathematics that we learn in schools we never use again in any practical sense. Very few people after school use calculus or algebra, things of that sort. I mean, yes, general arithmetic, things of that sort, I’m not arguing against that. I have never anywhere said that the arts are more important than the sciences or that dance is more important than mathematics. What I am saying is that they are equally important and they are all connected.

Now, I know the purpose of this whole segment was designed to a) set up the short segment that followed, and b) advertise the series. This means that really I should ignore it and move on, waiting to hear the whole in context. Well, no one else will do that, so why should I?

I like dancing. It’s fun. I am, like most people fairly rubbish at it. This is because I don’t do it very often. Like most people. So, anything I say here is not an argument about not dancing. It’s a discussion about how little Sir Ken (along with many others) appears to know about mathematics in schools.

Lets deal with the easy bit first. “When you say that we use mathematics everyday actually we really don’t.” Every single thing you do involves mathematics. Often our use of mathematics is so subtle and subconscious we don’t even realise it. The obvious ones are easy. We buy something in a shop. If we actually use cash we ensure we get the right change. This is probably the sort of example Sir Ken is thinking about given his reference to “general arithmetic” (as an aside, I never thought I would hear Sir Ken Robinson channelling Nick Gibb, but there you go).

But what about catching a train? Or cooking  meal? or decorating a room? Or filling the car with petrol? Or crossing the road? Or watching  a TV programme? Or going for a swim/walk/run? Or dancing? I really could go on and on and on. As anyone I have ever taught maths will know.

Now, to be fair to Sir Ken, he does caveat his comment with the words “…in any practical sense.” Well, yes, we don’t formally work out how fast the car is approaching, estimate how far away it is, measure the width of the road, use knowledge of how fast we can walk/run and thereby calculate the angle we need to walk across the road in order to avoid being hit. But that is what we do. Every day.

But that’s not the bit that really irritated me. No. The bit that did that was when he uttered the word “calculus”.

This was when his (genuine) desire to improve education hit the buffers of his knowledge. Because there’s a dirty little secret we try to keep hidden. It is remarkable that in the national curriculum of the  nation that 372 years ago gave birth to Sir Isaac Newton you cannot find the word “calculus”. We fetishise the study of Shakespeare, but we avoid the giant who authored The Principia. We should be ashamed.

“Ah”, you argue, “but calculus is too difficult for school children. They need to learn it later.”  For me this argument is a bit like saying that children should wait until they can walk and run, and then hop and jump, before they learn how to dance?

In my experience the earlier you learn calculus the easier it is to understand because you don’t build any barriers against it. You lack the fixed intuition that arithmetic develops for it to be counter-intuitive against. But that’s another argument.

The point there is that neither Sir Ken or his interviewer knew that, effectively, calculus is not taught as part of the national curriculum. And dance is. At all four key stages. So if his beef was about creativity per se, then he would be railing against the lack of Mathematics in the curriculum rather than effectively asking for it to be reduced.

All I want is that people who talk about the education system should know what they are talking about. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

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2 thoughts on “You can dance if you want to

  1. I’m just tryijg to track down the relevant data but Andreas Schleicher, at the final TISME conference, presented data showing a strong correlation between mathematical level and ‘life chances’ which suggested that the level to which a person is educated mathematically is correlated more strongly with things like higher income and better health, than any other educational measure, including literacy. I am always a bit skeptical of the OECD data as I think it often shows an appealing pattern with several clear examples that completely contradict the most obvious conclusion, and there remains a major problem with both the selective nature of the ‘Chinese’ data and the issue of whether the Hong Kong / Shanghai approach to education is sustainable. Nonetheless, I think this data will back up your argument about the importance of maths.

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