Posted by: Administrator | 08/11/2010

Alexandre Borovik: Opinions sought

I stand for election for the third (and final) term as a Member-at-Large mostly because I personally feel, and am very concerned, that in policy discussions on mathematics education, the voice of unversity mathematicians is not heard.

I had a chance to compare the working of the Programme Committee, on which I previously served, and Education Committee, on which I am serving now; in my opinion, Education Committee needs a serious change. Crucially, I feel that Council and Education Committee need a better understanding of education priorities.

Therefore I invite all LMS members to join  a discussion of education policy on this blog; all posts here are open for comment.

I suggest  ACME’s recent proposal (see to extend mathematics provision at schools to all 16-19 old students as a starting point for our discussion. This is a divisive issue: Chris Budd, judging by his statement in this blog, supports this idea, while Tony Gardiner and I assess it as a well-intended but naive and uncosted dream that in the current economic climate will lead to re-distribution of scarce resources away from Mathematics A-levels, thus damaging university level mathematics education.

But what should be the LMS’ response? In my opinion, the current procedures for formulation LMS’ policy are unsatisfactory. I believe that the role of the LMS as a membership charity and its Council should be, first of all,

  • listen to the LMS membership;
  • formulate consensus points of its members’ collective expert opinion on those aspect of education policy that affect university level mathematical education;
  • as a minimal requirement, avoid supporting positions not shared by the majority of LMS members.

As a membership charity which has advancement of mathematics as a charitable objective, we need to focus on areas and aspects of education policy where other players in the field have no expertise or motivation for carrying out a detailed and deep analysis. Of course, this includes, first of all,

  • University level mathematical education, including service teaching of mathematics;
  • PhD training in mathematics;
  • Training and professional development of university lecturers in mathematics.

But as major stakeholders in school level mathematics education, we should also look at

  • content of school mathematics, its level and quality;
  • mathematical skills actually acquired by university entrants during their school study;
  • format of school examinations and a value system instilled in students by the assessment system.

Your opinion? Please contribute your thoughts.

Alexandre Borovik

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  1. Universities were responsible for A-level syllabuses and examining once in the good old days, when only a very small proportion of the age group went to university. As this proportion increased, there came a time in which most A-level candidates were not going to university; I suppose it was thought at this point that universities had undue influence over A-levels. Now a very different set of circumstances prevails: most A-level candidates are intending to go to university, and it is not unreasonable that universities should again pick up the responsibility for A-levels. At least, in modern terminology, we are once again major stakeholders, with all that entails.

  2. I agree, that it is a very important for academic mathematics to start to engage seriously with school mathematics. The simultaneous scheduling of the British Congress of Mathematics Education and the British Maths Colloquium in April is perhaps evidence that the link is not as strong as it should be.

    We should be careful, however, in how we approach this. University mathematics might be a stakeholder in school mathematics, but despite the name, we are not the only one. Engineering and science both have a big stake. I do not know the numbers, but would have thought that between them these subject account for more undergraduates. Mathematics at school is one of the two biggest subjects, but that is certainly not the case at university.

    The other issue here is the reputation that we have developed in dealing with school education. When I have talked to teachers many feel that we only lecture them on everything that is wrong. How it is not rigorous enough, too reliant on rule based learning etc. We do not listen to what they have to say. The funny thing is, that in most cases they also agree with the criticisms. Like anybody else they just don’t like them coming from outside. They also feel other pressures, especially from the exam and testing culture, that they have to survive within.

    To really pursue our own case, therefore, we need to take a step back. To make sure that it does not seem that we claim the right to the subject and can then lecture on how things should be. Instead we should try to engage teachers, listen to their concerns and find common ground. In doing so we can also make the strong case for why we believe that school mathematics should be closer to our vision. In doing so we can then present a combined argument to the powers that be.

    I therefore believe that the education committee should be looking at two things:

    1) Trying to establish mathematicians common beliefs about what school mathematics should be. With the acknowledgement that none of us had what might be described as a typical school experience of mathematics.

    2) Trying to engage and find points of common ground between this vision and the ideas of teachers. To find excellent programs and ideas and support them. Perhaps this would even be helped by having school teachers on the committee itself.

    These are both serious challenges. Handled well, however they could lead to a voice that is valued for what it has to say, rather than just for the authority with which it speaks.

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