A new curriculum dawns for Wales. The Welsh Government has called our current curriculum “prescriptive, narrow and outdated”. As a Head of Maths I quite like my Maths to be prescriptive, narrow and outdated.
Let’s tackle prescriptive first. The Oxford dictionary defines prescriptive as “the imposition or enforcement of a rule or method”. Sounds fine to me. I want my students following the methods I show them and explore with them. Students making up their own rules and methods don’t generally end well. Many successful Maths departments insist on scripted lessons where every teacher in a department uses the same examples and the same explanations. Personally I find this prescription too far for me currently. In any good Maths curriculum there is scope for student investigation and a flexibility of approach and methods. But this freedom is often within the confines set skilfully by the teacher to guide students to a premediated outcome. The two antonyms of prescriptive suggested by Google are ‘free and easy’ and ‘optional’. Elements of freedom and choice are good in moderation only, and I would be concerned if Maths departments left too much choice and freedom to students.
Narrow is defined as “limited in extent, amount or scope”. The world of Mathematics is vast and students’ time in school is limited. So we have the classic curriculum conundrum of breadth vs depth. A few years ago, Andreas Schleicher, a director of OECD, stated that maths lessons in the UK are “a mile wide and an inch deep”. This view has been challenged since then and international comparisons have shown that the current curriculum in the UK is broadly in line with many successful countries. Recent adoptions of a Mastery style curriculum has perhaps reinforced the importance of depth and understanding rather than rushing through content. That is the approach that we have taken in my department as we have looked to streamline content to give us more time to look at fewer topics in more depth – especially at KS3. In that sense, we have taken the conscious decision to narrow our Maths curriculum.
Google gives synonyms for outdated as ‘old-fashioned’, ‘out of date’, ‘obsolete’ and also ‘moth eaten’, ‘creaky’ and ‘square-toed’. The Mathematics we teach is old. One of the wonders of Maths is that what was true thousands of years ago is still true now, and will forever be true. And we can prove it! The rich history of Mathematics brings together the greatest thinkers of the past and is comprised of men and women of different ages, colours and beliefs. Nearly all of the Mathematics taught in the UK’s Mathematics curriculum is based on Mathematics invented (discovered?) hundreds of years ago. Pythagoras’ Theorem is more than 2,500 years old. Euclid’s Elements was a main stay of classrooms for two thousand years and is considered one of the most influential and best-selling books of all time. There are exceptions. Box and Whisker diagrams were developed as ‘recently’ as the 1970s. However, the vast majority of the Mathematics we teach certainly is old, moth-eatingly old. This is not a bad thing. This age and history gives us comfort and refinement. Our role as Maths teachers is to pass on this knowledge, this purest form of human thought, to the next generation. We don’t need the currency battles of Stormzy vs Mozart. We don’t need to make maths current because it already is.
The new Curriculum for Wales may mean different things to different people in Wales, but I for one will be trying to preserve our mathematically “prescriptive, narrow and outdated” approach.