A mark of a successful primary school career is, according to the Conservatives, the ability to do long division. As our privately-educated Education Secretary Nicky Morgan explained, long division is at the heart of giving ‘every child the chance to master the basics and succeed in life,’ something that is a ‘fundamental duty’ of government.
This is interesting for many reasons. Here’s one. Finland, long-time star of the education world, has clearly decided it wants its children to fail. Shockingly, it is deleting long division from its national curriculum and replacing it with coding. The change is part of a drive, says Liisa Pohjolainen, head of education in Helsinki, to provide ‘a different kind of education’. Long division is being cast into the long grass because ‘young people now use quite advanced computers. In the past the banks had lots of clerks totting up figures but now that has totally changed’.
British technologist Conrad Wolfram makes the same point more bluntly. Long division, he says, is being used ‘as a badge of honour of what the government calls rigour when in fact it’s a prime example of mindless manual processing’. Marcus de Sautoy, professor for the public understanding of science, agrees: ‘Most people think that maths is about long division to lots of decimal places. Really, though, a mathematician is someone who looks at structure and pattern – and in a sense that’s how everyone reads the world: we’re all mathematicians at heart.’
All these comments echo the the Cambridge Primary Review final report which argued that ‘primary mathematics escapes the critical scrutiny to which other domains are subject’, and urged teachers and curriculum planners to ‘address with some rigour the question of what aspects of mathematics are truly essential and foundational in the primary phase’ (p271). Long division is neither. It’s not what maths is about. It’s what Tory politicians believe their voters believe maths is about. Hyping up the importance of long division in primary schools is yet another example of playing politics with education – as is labelling schools ‘coasting’ in order to create more academies. Statements of the bleeding obvious, maybe, but bleeding obvious statements clearly aren’t being made often or forcefully enough. If they were, changes that are bad for children and ultimately for all of us would not keep happening.
But back to the question of long division and the ethical issues it raises. Do I teach it knowing that I should not? Answer: a woeful yes. My profession is not trusted to decide what maths is best for young children. In that case, how do I teach it? My one year of training did not actually cover long division – or coding for that matter. My Finnish colleagues can, of course, teach both simultaneously while standing on their woolly-hatted heads. I calculate, using my mathematical skills, that this is because that they had five times more training than I did.
So, guiltily, I am relieved to discover that the way I was taught in (secondary) school is back in vogue. However, as we know, being able to do something is a far cry from being able to teach it. The CPR final report’s chapter on pedagogy (pp 279-310) makes excellent reading on this topic – as well as underlining the need for ‘teaching to be removed from political control’. But I am under political control so I dutifully draw my bus stop and pop the numbers in. For example, 7,236 divided by 36. I start the mantra: ‘First you divide 36 into 7. Won’t go. So next try 36 into 72.’ Half the class stare at me blankly. ‘They don’t know what you mean, by “into”,’ the TA whispers helpfully.
Oh, ok. ‘Let’s try how many 36s are there in 72?’ Still blank. Hmm. ‘If I had 72 sweets to share between 36 children, how many sweets would they have each?’ Hands wave excitedly. I get excited too. ‘Write your answers on your whiteboards, please, and hold them up.’ Oops. The mathematically able children are fine, but the rest hold up a random display of answers: 3, 4 and, bizarrely, 7.6.
I catch my TA’s eye. We are thinking the same thing. Back to basics once more for those who are struggling. But I am also aware that Asian maths teaching methods, most definitely approved of by the current administration, expect all children to progress at roughly the same pace. Lessons are repetitive, short and thorough. So do I force my able mathematicians to do what they can already do, over and over again, or do I differentiate by stretching them with more interesting challenges? If only Nicky Morgan would tell me. Interestingly, if you ask Google to search ‘differentiation and Nicky Morgan’ the top hit is a reference to a 2 per cent pay rise for the ‘best’ teachers. Guess that’s not me!
Similar questions cloud times tables teaching – another ‘basic’ that holds the key to a successful life, according to Mrs (don’t ask me 7×8) Morgan. Half my class know them inside out and back to front. Another quarter know them if they are given time to think. And another quarter is as doubtful as Mrs Morgan herself. Sometimes I yearn for the hot-house pressure of Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea where parents drill their children in their times tables and demand homework. Children in my class tell me in all seriousness that they have been too busy to do one piece of homework in a week. Perhaps they are right. Hopefully they have been too busy being children to bother learning that the internal angles of every triangle in the universe add up to 180, or that 7×8 is and always will be 56, or that 7,236 divided by 36 equals 201.
Conservative politicians also complain that too many children don’t understand fractions. I have a feeling that there might be a reason for this. It goes like this. 1⁄10 of population of the UK controls 1⁄2 of the wealth. Globally 1⁄100 controls 1⁄2 of world’s wealth. Try this one, 1⁄3 of children in the UK live in poverty. Yes, I agree with the government. Fractions are important when it comes to succeeding in life.
Stephanie Northen is a teacher and journalist. She contributed to the Cambridge Primary Review final report and is a member of the Board of the Cambridge Primary Review Trust. Read other blogs by Stephanie in CPRT’s recent downloadable collection Primary Colours .