Thursday, April 26, 2007

Appalling maths

I read this article on the BBC website and was appalled. Just what have we done to our education? Just how bad does it have to be before we notice that this government is letting a whole generation down.

It seems that pupils who want to study science at university are no longer told that maths will be mandatory, so they don't do it beyond GCSE. So when they get to university to study say chemistry, the chemistry department seems to want to find out if they can count to 11 without taking off their shoes.

Compare these two tests, one for a Chinese university entrance exam, the other to work out just how bad the maths of the UK student is.

The problem I have is this, the Chinese one, I think I could just about do, if I got my old A level maths books out, and worked hard to revise foe a week or two.

The UK one, I can do off the top of my head without the aid of a piece of paper, pen or calculator. It is obvious. Firstly it is a 345 triangle, so if one side is 3 and another 4, then the missing is one is 5 (this only works if there is a right angle between the 3 and the 4) but you can replace any of the missing sides.

Area of the triangle, well half the rectangle, which would have sides of 3 and 4, which would have an area of 12, half of which is 6.

The trick question is what is Tan 90 degrees as a fraction. It is in fact infinity as Tan =Sin/Cos and the cosine of 90 is 0.

I could have answered that question after the most basic of trigonometry. I can't quite remember if I was 11, 12 or 13 when I studied it to that most basic level (well, 345 triangles will have been very very early, tangents possibly as late as 11, 12 or 13).

So what is going on? Is our education system so bad that a 12 year old of 20 years ago could whip a science undergraduate at maths now? Is this what new Labour have done to our educational standards?

Just how are we supposed to compete with people who are still taught to old fashioned British standards?

The BBC has this. The government on the other hand has not got a clue.

Update 01:31

Read the last question too fast. Sugar. (Or words to that effect) it is not in fact the angle between lines A-B and B-C that they are asking for but the angle between lines A-C and C-B, and at this time of night I can't do that off the top of my head!


Anonymous said...

Tangent = opposite / adjacent

Anonymous said...

If you'd remembered your SOHCAHTOA you would indeed have been able to do it immediately.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, Geometry is basically an irrelevance in maths degrees these days so it's hardly surprising if people couldn't do the Chinese questions. (or at least thought, at first sight, that it looked difficult)

Whereas trigonometry still has a fair bit of relevance.

Benedict White said...

Anonymous," Tangent = opposite / adjacent"

Many thanks, and yes I know that now, I was working on the basis of what numbers I knew without checking!

As for the importence of geometry in maths, who cares? Geometry in science which is what we are talking about can be very important (for example in chemistry looking at crystal structures)

Anonymous said...

Oh, indeed. Being a parent with a school-age kid, we talk about such things to any other parents whose ear we can get hold of.

Apparently, seven year old kids now do sums with calculators, instead of learning to do it with their head. (My kid is five)

Calculators are only justifiable for doing those sums that would be inconvenient to do with a pen and paper. Using them from such an early age robs children of the chance to develop any sense of what numbers are.

I work with numbers in my job. I often make use of a calculator for various divisions, etc, but it is useful to have a sense of approximately what I expect the number to be, so that I can easily spot when I have made a typing error when using the calculator.

Many of today's kids just don't have this "feel" for the numbers, because they've basically just relied on the calculator.

Have to say that I loved University, though. We used to do order of magnitude calculations to refute NASA press releases...

Anyway, where did this start to go wrong? I blame the National Curriculum. For me that marks a shift in teaching away from being a creative profession towards being yet another exercise in form-filling and following the "approved method".

Benedict White said...

Timothy, I agree mostly, but I don't know where it went wrong!