Textbooks full of exercises more beneficial than experts

By John Watson

English-speaking maths teachers from Shanghai went to Britain to provide masterclasses and set up centres of excellence.
English-speaking maths teachers from Shanghai went to Britain to provide masterclasses and set up centres of excellence.

Admit it, you have been there in your dreams ...

The captain struck down by the mystery virus, the substitutes all vomiting, the appeal for a volunteer from the crowd and ... there you are, putting down the half-finished can of beer, buckling on the pads over faded jeans, striding to the wicket and, without any warm-up or practice, hitting the Australian bowling (yes, it would be them) all round the ground until the match is won and the series secure.

You walk off to the cheers of the crowd. Pretty ladies sigh with admiration. Journalists clamour for interviews - "Can it be true that you have not played much before?" they ask. "Are you descended from Bradman or W G Grace? Do you have cricketing genes?"

Alas, it is only a dream and reality is different.

If it is to flourish, talent needs to be supported by hard work. When told he was lucky on holing a long putt, the great South African golfer Gary Player replied: "Yes, I am lucky ...

and, you know, the more I practise, the luckier I get."

Well, that was golf. What about maths?

The sad truth is that tests run by the OECD show the standard of maths achieved by British children is a long way below the standard achieved by children in Shanghai and this has given the UK's Department of Education a big idea. Ship over 60 English-speaking maths teachers from Shanghai to provide masterclasses and set up "centres of excellence".

As education minister Elizabeth Truss said on her return from China, "What I saw in Shanghai ... has only strengthened my belief that we can learn from them."

Well, OK, maybe, but what exactly are we to learn from this undoubtedly expensive experiment?

It is possible of course that the Shanghai teachers will introduce genuine new techniques, but I suspect it will all turn out to be more mundane and all the teachers will do is emphasise the need for hard work and repetition to bring out the pupils' talent. Does the UK educational establishment need to be told how important that is? The odd thing is the answer may be "yes".

There are two approaches to teaching mathematics. The first puts all the emphasis on understanding. After all, if a child understands the theory, surely the drill of repetition is at best a waste of time and at worst will put them off the subject?

The second approach prizes repetition because then, at least, this child is equipped to do sums in real life. Often people will say the first system is suitable for children with the "maths gene", while the latter is appropriate for their less gifted friends. Actually, that isn't quite right.

Take the child with a real aptitude for maths and think about what needs to be encouraged. The essence of the subject is seeing patterns and using the fact that one has analysed similar patterns before to carry conclusions from one area to another. That is a skill which comes with repetition.

If you don't believe that, watch a good accountant read a balance sheet and see how quickly he draws conclusions from it. Would someone who merely knew the principles of accountancy be able to do the same? No - it is a skill which comes with practice.

The same holds good away from numbers. A lawyer can take the points out of a document in seconds because he has read many similar ones before. The farmer can judge the health of the sheep for the same reason (because he is used to sheep, not because he has read many documents). Take anything in which you have expertise and you will find that much of it is down to experience.

There is no need to guess, then, what message those Department of Education mandarins who sit cross-legged at the feet of the Shanghai gurus will hear.

It will not be drawn from the works of Confucius or even from the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao. It is a recipe for success which has been expressed in many ways but perhaps most succinctly by Steve Fairbairn, the iconic rowing coach of Jesus College, Cambridge.

"Mileage makes champions," he said. That is a rule which governs all areas of human endeavour including sport, art, forecasting weather and even the learning of mathematics.

We know the answer now and have no need of further guidance. They should be sent back to Shanghai and the money should be spent on textbooks full of exercises.

Before retiring, John Watson was a partner in an international law firm. He now writes from Islington, London.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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