19.11.07

REVEALED PREFERENCES. Students struggle with mathematics because there's insufficient social justice in the pedagogy, which is not the same thing as insufficient social justice in the content.

Paul Ernest, a professor at Exeter University's school of education and lifelong learning, argues that traditional teaching methods disadvantage ethnic minority pupils, girls, students with special needs and those from poor backgrounds, and that considerations of social responsibility should be applied to maths teaching.

"I disagree with people who think that mathematics is neutral and value-free," he says. "It is human made, therefore culturally influenced, and this makes social justice central and relevant in mathematics.

"We need to think of different ways of contextualising maths to take multi-culturalism, racism and sexism into account. Students need to see that everyone owns maths, and that many countries have had their roles in the development of the subject downplayed. We need to make maths more democratic and discursive, so they are not afraid to suggest wrong answers." As Ernest readily accepts, this last suggestion demands a total rethink of teaching styles, as one of the main problems students come across in maths is precisely that an answer is simply either right or wrong. And it's hard to get round that. Whereas an essay can allow for shades of opinion and degrees of understanding, most school - and even undergraduate - maths doesn't throw the subject open to these nuances.

Well, no, eix = cos(x) + i sin(x), not give or take a hyperbolic tangent.

I suppose it's churlish to point out that it's precisely the parts of the world where there's a premium on the skills of the symbolic analyst that this conversation is taking place, perhaps because there's a migration of people from parts of the world where that premium is absent to where that premium is present.

I know it's too much work deconstructing the full argument. Via Joanne Jacobs, I offer an Education Gadfly retort worthy of General MacAuliffe.

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