The Ashes of Mathematics Education

The battle of the next decade

Ofsted is the organisation charged with the responsibility to inspect government schools in England. Its head is appointed by the UK government and it publishes its reports on UK Government websites, while operating quasi-autonomously. In the past, it has been embroiled in controversy for requiring progressivist teaching approaches but it has moved away from that over the last decade.

It is a strange eccentricity of the UK system that the UK government directly controls education in England but in other parts of the UK, it is run by the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament. It means that, oddly, Scottish politicians have a say on English education but this is not reciprocated. This arrangement can have real world consequences when the UK government does not have majority support in England and I’m not sure why the English tolerate it. But I digress.

Interestingly, the UK’s structure has led to a natural experiment. In recent years, Scotland and Wales have drunk from the fountain of 21st century skills and implemented uber-groovy curriculums full of abstract nouns and verbs. England, by contrast, has taken a minimalist approach, focusing on an ambitious sequence of knowledge within established subject disciplines.

In mathematics, there are tentative signs that the English approach is working. Whereas in the 2015 round of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) England and Australia performed similarly in maths, in 2018, England leapt ahead of Australia and above the 500 benchmark.

This is the context into which Ofsted released their latest research report on mathematics teaching. Obviously, a report released in 2021 cannot be the cause of improvements made in 2018, but it does indicate something about current thinking and where that may head in the future.

For those of us who have been closely studying the recent draft of the new mathematics curriculum in Australia, the Ofsted report is perfect timing. It is clear and extensively referenced. You won’t find silly concepts like ‘mathematising’ in there.

I recommend reading the whole report, but I would just highlight two arguments it makes and for which it supplies evidence.

Firstly, mathematical motivation comes primarily from a sense of improved capability. Improving at maths is motivating. A fun lesson activity or a relevant real-world example may provoke passing interest, but that is all. I would add that there is therefore no conflict between teaching methods that are effective and teaching methods that are motivating.

Secondly, the report makes the point, lost on those drafting the Australian curriculum, that although problem solving is an aim of mathematics education, it is not best achieved by asking novices to solve lots of open-ended problems. Instead, you need a structured and scaffolded approach that gradually takes the supports away.

It will be interesting to see how things develop in the next decade. Will the Australian public accept the draft curriculum? If so, we may see the playing-out of the Ashes of Maths Education, pitting English views of maths teaching against the groovier Australian ones.

Who would you put your money on?