Numb or Numbered? Part 2.

Back in April — it seems so long ago now — I wrote about the problems created in university life science courses by the relatively low uptake of maths by the student intake.

It provoked a very long and thoughtful discussion, both beneath the blog post and in email exchanges that I had with many of my colleagues. I am extremely grateful to everyone who took part. That debate about how we should go about inculcating a profitable acquaintance with other mathematical tools among students really helped to inform my views, which I have now updated in a piece published in today’s Times Higher Education.

The publication date now looks very timely, since it comes just the day after Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, made an important speech about the government’s plans for mathematics education. From a quick first read, there’s much good sense in Gove’s remarks. Or at least there are decent aspirations. But it’s one thing to make a speech or write an article on a blog or in a newspaper. Making change happen on the ground is where the real hard work has to start.



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22 Responses to Numb or Numbered? Part 2.

  1. Duncan Hull says:

    Interesting piece Stephen, I think many of the problems with mathematics education before University are summed up beautifully in this classic paper A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form by Paul Lockhart.

    • Stephen says:

      Couldn’t agree more Duncan – someone linked to that piece in the comments to my original post. For those who haven’t read it yet, I can thoroughly recommend it.

  2. @stephenemoss says:

    Stephen, your THE article is timely indeed, and I’m sure most academics working in the STEM subjects would support the need for greater numeracy in our undergraduates. I remember teaching first year Physiology undergrads who didn’t know what the ‘p’ or the ‘H’ meant in pH, let alone how to do the calculation once told. But the challenge now, as you rightly point out, is making change happen. Perhaps organize a brain-storming meeting of those with an interest, or maybe start with a Science Question Time?

    Gove’s speech expresses some good intentions, but it also highlights gaps in government thinking. He laments not only our mathematical inadequacies when compared to the Chinese, but also the poor performance of the UK in publishing scientific papers and our downward trajectory in patent applications. Yet elsewhere in government, BIS have chosen to freeze the science budget for four years, which at current inflation rates is likely to amount to a >16% cut by 2014. Hardly a recipe for stimulating economic prosperity, and in contrast to many of the UK’s competitors.

    Gove does talk about enhancing the maths content of the GCSE syllabus. Presumably he likes the idea that more students leaving school with an understanding of statistics would lead to public greater awareness of how governments manipulate figures to suit their purpose. For example, is that £135m he mentioned new money, or was it already allocated? He then talks about the fact that we ‘allow students to abandon any mathematical study after 16’, and whilst deploring this fact and pointing out what we should be aiming for, he stops short of actually saying the government will make maths (at least at some level) compulsory for those who continue studying post-GCSE. The closest he comes is when he says ‘I think we should set a new goal…..that within a decade the vast majority of pupils are studying maths right through to the age of 18’. I find this rather vague, and far enough in the future to ensure he doesn’t get caught out in the current parliamentary term.

    The rest of his speech delivers a lot of ‘feel good’ promises about incentives for maths teachers, better maths teachers, making maths fun in the classroom, and engagement with the private sector, such as the ‘financial institutions in the city’. I have no problem with any of this, and like to think that our financial institutions may eventually be peopled by those sufficiently numerate to understand the difference between profit and loss when dealing with numbers like £850bn.

    • Of course, making teachers work until 66, gutting their pension scheme, and making clear by your actions in Govt that you view then as pampered work-shy layabouts, are OBVIOUSLY going to attract a lot more Maths grads to work in teaching.

      After all, it isn’t like they can earn multiples of a teacher’s salary working in banking…

    • Stephen says:

      Oh you cynic… (though you have seen clearly through some of Gove’s rhetoric)!

      On the relative decline of UK vs chinese scientific output, in part that simply reflects long overdue development on the Chinese side and the finite extent of the scientific literature (even if it is expanding). But you’re right that we will lose further ground without sustained investment.

      • @stephenemoss says:

        Yes, surprising that Gove chose to compare the UK with China. We’d have looked rather better against almost any other country. However, if we’re to find useful jobs in STEM subjects for all those uber-numerate graduates there will need to be considerable investment in science and technology in the coming years.

  3. Duncan Hull says:

    Hello again Stephen, I originally posted this comment over at times highereducation but for some reason it got moderated (and all the links get stripped out)…

    I completely agree with your statement in the THES article “Equally but more pressingly, we need to do more to embed mathematics in the life sciences curricula at university. The key to winning a high level of engagement from students is to ensure that maths is taught within the context of the life sciences”

    Here’s something positive that can be done. A prominent life scientist, Ewan Birney recently wrote a wish-list of Five statistical things I wished I had been taught 20 years ago, which makes interesting reading.

    These kind of skills might be a good place to start (at least for “genome sequencing, microarrays, proteomics and suchlike” anyway)?

    • Stephen says:

      Thanks Duncan, that looks like a good place to start.

      Funny enough I remember reading Ewan Birney’s paper on RNA recognition motifs back in the early ’90s… ah, good times.

  4. I am the king of cynics: one who thinks that higher education teachers really overestimate their role. My favorite quote’s about university system is Frank Zappa’s “If you want to get laid, go to college; if you want to get an education go to the library”.

    That said: for someone like me who is not really familiar with her majesty’s school system, this long discussion is quite revealing (and frightening, as father). The idea that math should not be enforced in universities because it would be unfair on pupils with lower income is beyond me: it seems that the well accepted consensus in the UK is that if I want my son to get the best education, I’d better live in a wealthy neighborhood and I’d better be Catholic. WTF is this? Middle age? This problem goes well beyond math, it seems, and start well before the students enter University. It’s a tragedy.

    By the way @stephenmoss: I am pretty sure nobody really knows what pH really stand for as Sorensen, who introduced the term, never bothered explaining what p was for.

    • cromercrox says:

      ‘The idea that math should not be enforced in universities because it would be unfair on pupils with lower income is beyond me’

      Not beyond me, though. One thing I have found, being a parent, is that embattled teachers sometimes have rather low expectations of their pupils, and this tends to be worse in areas with lower income or working class catchments (note – the terms ‘lower income’ and ‘working class’ are not congruent). This is of course self-fulfilling.

      • cromercox, I understand Stephen’s statement and in fact I agree with it. What I find unbelievable is that in the UK, in 2011, one has to worry about students getting two tiers of instruction based on their parents income. This is actually even worse than the american system: at least in the US one doesn’t have to become catholic to have access to the (allegedly) good schools.

        The main role of public schools (and of education tout-court) should be to favor upward vertical mobility. Here, through a system that is completely self-fulfilling as you noted, things are set to go the other way round.

        (@stephen, the email notification of new comments doesn’t work for me.)

        • Stephen says:

          Giorgio – the role of schools should be to provide opportunities but that can be very hard to achieve, especially in deprived areas there there are higher numbers of disaffected children, who are probably the offspring of disaffected parents who themselves profited not very much from schooling and pass that message on. Such parents are the ones Cromercrox refers to, who delegate not just education but also discipline to the school system. In those circumstances, any education that goes on is due to the heroic work of some teachers.

          Of course these problems are generic.

          (PS Not sure why the comment notification is not working for you – will look into it. Did you get a confirmatory email?)

          • Stephen, no doubt it is hard to achieve but that should be the goal nevertheless.

            Since we are getting to the meat: after some reading and studying I came to the conclusion that the ofsted system is full of shit. Ranking schools based on arbitrary and subjective criteria cannot bring to anything but self fulfilling prophecies.

            (I am planning to marry Pippa Middleton, become King through some dark path and get rid of ofsted for the greater good. email notification worked now.)

  5. cromercrox says:

    All these things start at school, and with inspirational teachers. Crox Minima (now aged 11) used to loathe maths. The teaching was lacklustre and consisted of a teacher who handed out prescribed worksheets and didn’t seem very receptive to students who wanted things explained. The result was that I’d have to ‘help’ Crox Minima with her homework – I dreaded Sunday afternoons. Cue tears, rages, tantrums and storming out of the room in high dudgeon, and that was just me. Then Crox Minima moved schools – another state primary, but with a more middle-class educated catchment, and has a class teacher who is much better and more interactive. The first I knew of this was when Crox Minima came home and said things like ‘I LOVE maths!’ and begged me to set algebra problems for her. My response was ‘who are you, and what have you done with Crox Minima?’

    But before that, all these things start at home. There is a perception among some working class less well-educated parents that the entire business of education is solely the responsibility of teachers. I once met an educational psychologist working with children who were slow to learn to read and write. Home visits were always an eye-opener … the parents who complained most that little Johnny couldn’t read or write and otherwise seemed as dumb as a tree had no books in the house and probably didn’t read with their children or read bedtime stories to them.

  6. Stephen says:

    It is a tragedy Giorgio, but as Cromercrox points out (and I tried to argue in the THE piece) the problem is deep-seated, interconnected and multi-layered. It will take a lot of hard work and good will to remedy.

    And that’s about as profound as I can manage, I’m afraid, at this hour on a Friday morning…

  7. Glenn Masson says:

    I’m the proto-typical student in your THE piece. Back in 2006/7, I did Biology, Physics, and Chemistry at A-level. As an aspiring Biochemist, I noted a lack of a Maths A-Level requirement for most universities, so I chose Music instead for simply for variety’s sake. I was a competent maths student at school- I even did a few A-level modules early during my GCSEs – but I chose to drop it, something I now heavily regret. Thankfully, these A-level modules gave me a grasp of exponentials, along with some integration and differentiation.

    As you described, during my undergraduate course the exposure to mathematics in pretty limited. I undertook an undergraduate course at the University of Sheffield, with mathematics rearing its head occasionally when calculating rate constants, Bragg’s law, and the ever present buffer concentrations. There was also an annual “data-handling” examination – something which was normally talked about in subdued tones by undergrads. Only an average understanding of maths is required to pass an undergraduate degree – but it was startling to see otherwise very gifted students on the verge of tears when presented with a couple of a maths-based questions.
    I’m starting my PhD this October and this is where things get more interesting – and more worrying. Reading through Bernard Rupp’s Biomolecular Crystallography as preparation for my PhD, it’s simply staggering how much mathematics lies beneath the surface of the science, most of which is far beyond my comprehension.

    If someone had taken me aside in 2007 and told me how vital maths would be in any scientific discipline, it wouldn’t have taken much for me to attempt the A-level. I’ve tried to redress the balance and done some piecemeal self learning. In order to excel in any field of biochemistry now-a-days you need a good grasp of calculus – something I that my schooling hasn’t given me.

    • Stephen says:

      Glenn – You identify a difficulty that others have expressed – the constraints on learning due to the specialisation imposed at A level. Little likelihood of change there I’m afraid.

      WIth regard to crystallography – Rupp’s book is a terrifying text for the uninitiated (and even for some of the initiated). A better place to start is with David Blow’s Outline of Crystallography for Biologists. Still contains maths but in a more palatable form.

  8. cromercrox says:

    The problem goes way, way back. When I was a lad the first year Natural Sciences tripos at Cambridge has a course called ‘Elementary Mathematics for Biologists’ – I wonder if it still exists?

  9. Teacherjo says:

    I was very interested in your article (catching up after my holiday). I was a Biologist who studied Biology, Chemistry and Physics at A level and therefore always felt insecure about the Maths, but on my UG programme we were taught Maths alongside the degree and had to pass it! I spent far more time on the Maths, got top marks and technically it is my second teaching subject specialism. The insecurity never quite left me, once you lose that confidence even consistent evidence to counter that isn’t altogether reassuring. I continued to feel weaker at Maths than the other sciences.
    Years ago as a senior manager in a college I put together with the Maths department some extra sessions for the Biologists and Psychologists I was teaching, but it failed because although a brilliant maths teacher my colleague didn’t off the right context for learning for these students.
    You are absolutely right on both points, insist on A level Maths and you will exclude some excellent biology students who just haven’t had access to good teaching, impose Maths in a pure form and they won’t engage.
    I found for adult students struggling with Maths the best answer was a superb teacher who had had to win their own battles with the subject to master it, and set it in the right context for those students. The advantage of this is that they are often biologists and they are easier to find than Maths graduates, but schools are restricted by the ‘degree in your subject’ element to train teachers and that is the problem!
    Good teaching is more important in schools than subject specialism, a good teacher will make sure they learn their craft, the focus is on the learners learning, not the teachers qualifications, that comes in at the higher levels at University.
    However the ideal will always be a Maths graduate who is a fabulous teacher, but there just aren’t enough of them.

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