Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Great Expectations

Most academic mathematicians love mathematics, and in their teaching they try to pass on their wonder at the beauty, subtlety, ubiquity, relevance and <add your preferred adjective here> of the subject. Once upon a time, when only 7% of the population went to univerisity, they might have expected their students to share this vision and appreciate the technical minutiae that so tickle them. Below is an example of how not to do this.

At the IMA Strategy Review Meeting last weekend I had a fascinating conversation (OK, I'm a mathematician!) with Neil Challis of Sheffield Hallam who has been surveying students about their attitude to mathematics and their degree. The students came from both Russell Group and post-1992 universities, and Neil concluded that whilst they were a diverse lot, certain common themes came through:
  • Their prime motivation was to get a good degree so as to get a good job (with a minimum of study).
  • They chose mathematics because they were good at it (or couldn't get onto a Business Studies course) and thought it would be the easiest path to a degree.
  • They were more concerned about passing exams than learning mathematics.
Of course, there are still examples of geek chic, but this was the majority opinion. These attitudes pose questions about how and what we teach, and how this connects with student expectations. I have two observations.

1. In the light of changing funding mechanisms, how long can the disjunction between what academics think they are doing when they are teaching and what most students actually want from their teachers continue to exist? And who will blink first?

2. What does it mean for the discipline if the vast majority of students who graduate in mathematics do so having been told (albeit subliminally) by many of their teachers that they are not good mathematicians because they do not care about mathematics in the way their teachers expect them to care about it.

I worry particularly about the second point. If we want mathematics to be as influential as it ought to be we need advocates within society. The natural advocates are maths graduates, and if we alienate and belittle them then what does it say about us as mathematics teachers, and what chance do we have of gaining our graduates' support when we need it?

Neil has promised to send me a copy of his report -- I look forward to reading it in more detail.

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