Mathematics education uncovered and recovered

Restriction of thought

A few months after my daughter started secondary school, I saw her school maths workbook. The usual A4 pages were divided in half, leaving two narrow columns to write down the solutions.

It was painful to see the working out of the sum of four mixed fractions laid out over seven short lines or the graphs so squashed that no detail was discernible.

Needless to say, the students were not expected to draw any diagrams to help their thinking. Ideally, only answers were required, so the workbook would look more like an answer book.

I couldn’t imagine an English or a Science workbook with similar formatting, so why do this in Maths? It turned out that the idea was partly to help students keep their writing neat, but mostly to save paper. Nobody thinks about saving paper when a child learns to draw, but learning maths seemed to be different.

What is really surprising is how widespread this practice is. Whether it’s a state school with a very tight budget or a long-established highly selective private school, the tradition is the same: split the page. No time for thinking, no space for rough work, write down the answers as fast as you can and move on.