A lot of things startled me when I started teaching in the UK. The accents. The ubiquity of tea. (As I like to say: “ubiquitea.”) The adorable and inexplicable pluralization of “math.” But what stunned me most was that the Brits don’t follow a sequence of math courses anything like ours.
You know the traditional American chain—Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, and so on?
In Britain, they make no such distinctions. It’s all “maths.”
Now, we teachers know that we inhabit imperfect systems. (Some days, we feel like we know it all too well.) I don’t think you’d say we’re unduly attached to them. If you ask most British or American math teachers, “Does your country have a well-functioning educational system?” you’ll get anything from a cynical scowl to a bout of weeping.
But ask us, “Isn’t the other country’s structure better?” and you’ll witness a sudden and righteous swell of patriotism.
This is more than a mere protective instinct, the educator’s version of “nobody beats up my little brother but me.” Whether we enjoyed our own schooling or not, those experiences shaped our vision of what an ideal math education ought to look like.
Should math be like science, with themed years emphasizing different branches of knowledge?
Or should it be like English, each year a cross-section of the whole subject?
Each side feels like it sees obvious weaknesses in the opponent’s armor. But having taught in both systems, I find most of the attacks are easily repelled.
Take this one:
What makes math education feel monotonous and boring, as it too often does? Not the specific choice of topic, I think.
Rather, it’s a question of lesson design.
If my only move as a teacher is to make you rehearse an algorithm all day, then it doesn’t matter if I’m leaping from statistics to calculus to combinatorics in the span of a single week. My poor students are going to be pulling their hair out and giving themselves pen-tattoos just to keep awake.
Conversely, if I’ve got a varied diet of activities—modeling tasks, challenge puzzles, card sorts, longer-term projects, open-ended questions—then kids can endure even a long unit without their will to live being snuffed out.
Or consider this attack:
Again, confusion is a lesson-by-lesson danger. Leap into an abstract problem without laying the groundwork, and you can bewilder kids in a matter of seconds. It won’t matter if you’ve been tackling similar problems all week. Kids are never so far from the cliff of consternation that a good shove can’t send them toppling over.
Meanwhile, if you ease into the day’s work with the right combination of warm-ups, built-in reminders, and intriguing questions, then kids are surprisingly quick to pick up a thread they left off months ago. (Even if it takes a while, the benefits of spreading out your experiences with a topic—see How We Learn, by Benedict Carey—help to compensate.)
Or check out these dueling attacks:
Empty rhetoric vs. empty rhetoric.
For the most part, neither country’s students are achieving a crisp and unified vision of the subject. We’re comparing our own country’s lofty ideals to the other’s disappointing realities—not exactly a fair fight.
If you’ve guessed that I’m building towards a wishy-washy “They’re both equally good!” conclusion, then you’re almost right. I genuinely prefer the American way, but I suspect that a twin version of me raised in Liverpool would disagree. Even so, I know we’d agree on this:
The problems intrinsic to each system are utterly dwarfed by the problems in their execution.
After bickering with my colleagues about these issues (which I do from time to time), I realize how silly it is. It’s like we’re tasting two burnt cakes and arguing which one has the better recipe.
Who cares? How would we even tell which plan is better, when all we’ve got are these monstrous piles of char?
The real question isn’t which recipe to follow. It’s how to make either recipe into a reality. It’s how to build a world where teachers and students can thrive and learn, without being burnt to a crisp by the ten thousand competing pressures that a society places on its schools.
Before we decide which cake is closer to perfect, let’s figure out how to bake one that’s edible.