A few months ago, I asked blog readers for suggestions for what had gone wrong with mathematics education. Plenty of discussion ensued, and it was very enlightening.
The purpose of that blog post was to help with the writing of an article. Guy Rundle had suggested that I write something on mathematics education for the magazine Arena. The article has now appeared (and in print). The introduction to the article is below and the full article can be read at Arena. Thank you to Guy for the opportunity, thank you all for your suggestions, and thank you to my secret crack team of hypercritical editors. (I have no idea of the significance of Arena’s graphic, but that’s cool, and it’s cool.)
DO THE MATHS: WHY MATHEMATICS EDUCATION IS FAILING OUR KIDS
In memory of Jeff, my brother and teacher
HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE
I am, or at least was, a mathematician. I lectured and I proved theorems. With my friend and colleague Burkard Polster, I also devoted many years to the popularisation of mathematics. We were good; Burkard still is.
Burkard and I were busy. We engaged endlessly with teachers and their students, and with the general public. For 111 years we wrote a ‘Maths Masters’ column for The Age newspaper, amounting to 11111111 columns (the reader is invited to puzzle over that, or to just accept that it means ‘a lot’). The Maths Masters’ motivation and mantra was ‘to do whatever they can to convince whomever they can that mathematics is beautiful and fun’. We took hold of many whomevers over the years, and we convinced a decent few.
While Burkard was, and still is, happy to continue along this path, I slowly began to change direction. I became disillusioned with the underlying state of school mathematics, convinced that ‘beautiful’ and ‘fun’ were not enough and not the point. My ‘popularisation’ work became more polemical, and Burkard and I began to resemble the cartoon characters Ren and Stimpy, appealing to our audiences, and now the education authorities, in very different ways. These days I am, in the main, an angry blogger. I try to change people’s attitudes not with beauty and fun but with strong and pointed critique. I get less public praise, but I am more comfortable with what I do.
In this article, I will try to explain my disillusionment. I will try to describe the manner in which school mathematics education has lost its meaning and proper purpose, and the causes of this. The reader is invited to extrapolate to other disciplines.
(The rest of the article is accessible at Arena.)