Michael Gove is in the media a lot at the moment: Headlines concerning poor and failing schools dominate.
But what constitutes failure? For Gove and the government the answer is 60 percent. (Primary schools are judged as failing if less than 60 per cent of pupils meet the expected level in reading, writing and maths over the past 5 years.)
“For years hundreds of children have grown up effectively ...innumerate.” Michael Gove
He is, of course, absolutely right - although thousands rather than hundreds would probably be a more accurate figure for this dismal failure.
So - one way or another - Michael Gove is seeking change, be it to the naming and funding of a school (Academy status) or to the topics taught (overview of the National Curriculum). In a speech to the Royal Society (June 2011) he considers where best to concentrate his efforts:
One of the lessons from the international evidence is that in East Asia there is much greater focus on fundamental number concepts, fractions and the building blocks of algebra in primary school. They have minimum standards that they aim to get practically all children to reach so they have a firm foundation for secondary. It may be, therefore, that we will adopt the same approach and have much more emphasis on pre-algebra in primary and remove data handling and some other subjects from the primary curriculum.
Pre-algebra? I think this is an Americanisation but if he simply means - let’s just get stuck in and do more algebra without being afraid of it - and more significantly - without passing on any of ‘our’ fear to the children - then I couldn’t agree more.
Algebra is delightful. To appreciate this, it just needs to be taught well. Why is algebra so jaw droppingly good? Put simply it is the essence of mathematics; it is the language of maths; it is precise, exacting, rigorous and succinct. At a basic level algebra is an efficient form of short hand; at an advanced level it is the sole vehicle for expressing and examining theories and discoveries. We can no more easily seperate out and ignore Algebra than we can Geometry or Topolgy or any other strand of the subject.
If none of this is enough to persuade a typical teenager (or parent or reluctant teacher) of the merits of the matter, I simply say… algebra is good for you, it strengthens the mind and encourages precise logical thinking – skills any employer would appreciate.
In Arabic the word ‘algebra’ simply means ‘restore’ or ‘balance’.
Just because algebra can (eventually) become complicated and complex, it discourages some from ever stepping out on the start of the journey.
Playing the piano can be highly intricate, football skills can be extremely challenging. but few of us would shrink from encouraging our children to take part. We know very few of them will ever perform live ballet at the... but we are still happy to take them to their weekly class and cheer their termly progress. Why, as a nation, do we actively discourage our children from properly engaging with algebra just because one day it could become quite tricky!!!!!!!!!
So on this matter alone, I agree with you Michael: train and support primary teachers to appreciate the beauty of algebra; encourage and enthuse the teachers to enjoy the elegance and eloquence of the language; and ensure that algebra is universally taught well.