In sports as far apart as tennis and snooker, it is taken for granted that pressure tends to bring about a worsening of performance. In a situation where the loss of the next game or the next frame could be fatal, the player has to exert great self-control to prevent the muscles from tightening and the play deteriorating. This is somewhat paradoxical. In a situation where it is unusually important to play well, the effect is to make bad play more likely.
This error, excessive pressure, was much less common earlier in the century. Of course some
students were flummoxed by exams and the visit of an inspector to a school was an important event. I do not have
printed evidence of this to hand, but my recollection is that in the middle of this century inspectors were told
to recommend changes they thought desirable, but not to command them.
I remember giving talks, sponsored by inspectors, about this time. The teachers certainly did
not give the impression of being browbeaten. Someone once congratulated me because, when I suggested some idea
and the teachers tore it to bits, I would rise from this knocking down and repeat the suggestion.
Some interesting evidence is provided by the Ministry
of Education pamphlet 36, issued in 1958, Teaching Mathematics in Secondary Schools. It envisages great flexibility
at the discretion of the teacher. It quotes extensively from the 1919 report of the Mathematical Association.
This stresses the importance of students succeeding, and says that here mathematics has advantages; "the tasks can be graduated nicely to the powers of the worker; there is never any necessity
to set hopeless tasks." The school should be equipped to educate both the average
student and the student of genius.
The very favourable situation in which the Mathematical Association report was written, to the
best of my belief, never happened in any other country; over a period of years, the university students with the
strongest records at research level decided to become school teachers rather than university lecturers. The reason
may have been that, from 1867 to 1902, schoolteachers had fought a determined battle for the reform of mathematical
education against the opposition of hidebound university mathematicians. Whatever the reason, that was the situation
in the early years of the century; the outstanding mathematicians were in the schools. ( For instance, Macaulay,
head of mathematics at St. Paul's School, became an F.R.S. in 1928.) They were thus able to appreciate the possibility
of there being a genius among their students. It is to their credit that they recognized the need to cater for
the average and below average student.
I remember a Ministry publication from this wiser era that came later in the century, Mathematics in Primary Schools. The central idea was that teaching should relate to things that interested children. Some of the activities that had been used were not particularly unusual. For instance children apparently found estimating the area of a room by covering the floor with newspapers quite interesting. On another occasion, a class had been on a nature walk and collected various creatures. The question then arose, "What shall we do with them?" Someone suggested,"See how fast they can travel", so a caterpillar was persuaded to walk along a foot ruler and the time taken. (This must have been before metrication.) An essay, subsequently written by a young girl, ran somerthing as follows.
In all of this there is not the slightest sign of pressure or compulsion. With competent teaching,
these are quite unnecessary.
This version: 18th January 2001