Recent Concerns

From: Professor Warwick Sawyer

I would like to express my thanks to Mark Alder for making this space available to me to express my ideas.

My recent concerns were expressed in two articles;-
Mathematics, Emotions and Things in Mathematics Teaching for March 1993.

Catering for the Extremes in Mathematics in School for March 1995.

(1) dealt with my experiences in trying to reach the least academic students. (2) dealt with school teaching of the mathematically ablest students.

* * *

It is widely recognized that the weakest students can be very unhappy if their special needs are not met. It is often not recognized that the ablest too can suffer acutely, if they are captive in a lockstep class and have to work, at what seems to them a snail's pace, through material they could have disposed of quickly when they were several years younger. The root of the trouble lies in the concept that education is something done to a pupil by a teacher. This is entirely untrue, at any rate for mathematics. Young mathematicians are hungry for knowledge and nothing delights them more than to be given the opportunity to read ahead on their own. The strongest students will then reach topics far beyond anything that a school curriculum could possibly contain or a school teacher be expected to expound. Even those, who are slightly above the level the curriculum envisages, will benefit from the relief of boredom and the extra knowledge acquired.

In the article (2) I have given details of the way this philosophy was applied, very successfully, in a number of schools in the 1920s. The article then goes on to contend that this approach could be used in a comprehensive school, since it puts no demands on the teachers. It is very desirable that this should be done, and there is no actual obstacle to this happening. The only obstacles lie in the minds of those who cannot understand the idea.

The parents of pupils who find the pace of teaching so slow as to be boring will surely know that this is so. Such parents could collect evidence that their son or daughter enjoys reading books involving mathematics or science. They could approach the school very tactfully and gently enquire if some degree of flexibility could be introduced.

Teachers who recognize the problem will be able to suggest possible ways of improving the situation. Even a small step in the right direction could be valuable.

The article (2) indicates a way in which it could be ensured that the freedom to read ahead does not lead to failure in the routine topics.

Cambridge, England
2nd March 2000

Copyright © W. W. Sawyer & Mark Alder 2000

Version: 22nd March 2001