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Problem of Maths

Don't shoot the Maths teacher


If maths was would be a vegetable like Brussels sprouts, zucchini or broccoli - good for us but awful to taste. If maths was a would be brown (boring), black (evil) or red (angry). If maths was would be classical (hard to understand) or hard rock (hurts our head).

That is how Australian junior secondary schoolchildren visualise math, says a study by Queensland associate professor Merilyn Goos. A study by Susan Picker and John Berry among children between 12 and 13 across US, the UK, Finland, Sweden and Romania threw up even more disturbing images. Children were asked to draw a picture of a mathematician at work. The images, says Shashidhar Jagadeeshan, maths teacher at the Centre for Learning (CFL) in Bangalore, brought home to him the full magnitude of the maths phobia across the globe. Mathematicians either turned out to be nasties holding a gun to the head of children or lonely, ugly, sad, ill-tempered people (" have no friends/are not married or seeing anyone/are not stylish/have little hair/are usually fat/have wrinkles on their head from thinking so hard" ).

There is a fundamental problem with how maths has been traditionally taught - the tyranny of the one correct answer. "We communicate a sense that there is just one way of doing things, that mathematics is a fait accompli subject in which all that is worth doing has already been done. And all that is left for us as individuals is to learn what has been done. This means zero ownership of the subject and a model that leaches away our originality, " says Shailesh Shirali, a veteran math teacher from Rishi Valley who runs a maths community centre and is engaged in the national initiative for maths education.

Shirali and Jagadeeshan are among the new wave of maths educators who want to replace the bleak descriptors for the subject with totally unusual ones - deep and beautiful. In fact, if you were to run the 'if maths were a...' questions past the children at schools that are working on maths education such as CFL or Rishi Valley, chances are the answers would be far less depressing than those Goos or Picker-Berry found.

CFL is not a school that works at churning out maths wizards, but it definitely has no maths phobes, says Jagadeeshan. His school, he says, has succeeded by delinking the whole fear-reward-punishment-competition chain in maths teaching. And ensuring that a child's self worth is not linked to maths scores.

How does this alternate system work? "Solve problems, talk about strategies, show connections, show the power of simple ideas, talk about beauty and elegance, talk about history and about people, show that maths is a human endeavour, that it had beginnings, show that you the teacher are human too and there are problems you cannot solve, talk about exploration and show how it can be done in the classroom, show that research is not just at the PhD level but can be done in middle school, " is the approach that Shirali suggests to those who participate in the workshops at his maths centre.

It would be unfair to say that nothing has changed in maths education in the country over the last decade. If good intentions meant much, we would be a nation with far fewer math phobes. "Teachers (should) engage every child in class with the conviction that everyone can learn mathematics, " states the National Curriculum Framework 2005. Maths, it points out, should be taught for a higher, not narrow, aim of developing a child's resources to think and reason mathematically. This means that children enjoy maths, go beyond the formulas and procedures to actually engage with the subject, discuss it and grow with it. Most importantly, they learn to connect mathematics with other fields such as social sciences and sciences.

In classrooms too, there is greater use of non-traditional, teaching aids through the primary years and the start of middle school. But all of this seems to come to an abrupt end when the child reaches late middle and high school. Former maths teacher at Delhi Public School Jonaki Ghosh discovered something startling when she went through the Class XI and XII NCERT maths textbooks for the last 25 years. "The chapters are the same, the exercises are the same, the applications are the same, the graphs are the same. Of course, there is a lot of rigour, but no attempt to bring in any change, " says Ghosh who now works at the primary education department of Lady Shri Ram College.

The trauma associated with maths learning is totally unnecessary even in high school, believe teachers. Ghosh points out that even an abstract topic like differential equations can be taught by associating it with many real-life phenomenon, it can even be taught from lower classes by using realistic contexts. "In fact more advanced mathematics will lend itself to many interesting approaches to teaching, which include project work, mini investigations, problem solving and pattern recognition, which can reveal different aspects of mathematics, " says Jagadeeshan.

The most inspiring example Shirali says is of a student who wasn't great at maths but who decided to stay with the subject because he liked it. Of course, there is no getting away from the fact that some children are more gifted than others. And such children will evolve into people with greater appreciation of maths. But teachers find that if children are taught to recognize patterns, record their observations, make conjectures about these observations, they learn to find the beauty in the subject whether they stick with it in later life or not.

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