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The evidence against

'traditional' methods

Many large-scale statistical surveys have been done, particularly in the United States and Canada, which have reported similar results to those in the article "They've got the right formula" (10 October). The importance of Dr Boaler's extremely careful, balanced and rigorous study is that, for the first time, it provides evidence which explains why comparisons of "traditional" with alternative methods favour the latter. The students, in Dr Boaler's study, point to the reasons why the reduction of mathematics achievement on standardised tests to a list of correct results to somewhat trivial questions, asked out of any other context than the test, does not produce mathematically able citizens. Students prefer to be challenged rather than spoon-fed, dislike lessons that are fast-paced due to pressure of syllabus, and want to be recognised as competent to make judgements about what they do and do not know.

Unlike "snapshots" often undertaken quantitatively, the pupils in this study, carefully matched socio-culturally, were followed over three years of extremely systematic data collection which concluded with an examination of their performance on GCSE. Despite GCSE being a more suitable test for those "traditionally" taught as it emphasises the reproduction of facts and the use of practised skills, and despite evidence in the study that the pupils in the project classrooms were not always on task, the latter outperformed the former. However, satisfactory performance on GCSE is a necessary but not a sufficient indicator either for choosing further studies in mathematics, or for feeling mathematically competent and confident whether in school or out. They were clear that they had learnt how to use mathematics and this learning stood them in good stead even in GCSE.

It is a shame for our pupils and teachers that even though such knowledge is well-tested and well-known internationally, we still have powerful voices attempting to hold us to educational practices long since recognised as maladaptive to the needs of the 21st century.

Leone Burton

Professor of Education

(Mathematics and Science)

The University of Birmingham

Your Education issue of 10 October successfully pinpoints the dichotomy of attitudes in mathematics education, with Tony Gardiner (page 2) railing about students who find their own methods and Jo Boaler (page 12) upholding "progressive" methods while denouncing the textbook.

For some of us who are trying to provide a rich range of textbook resources this is nothing new. We are alternately bemused and depressed by it. It appears to us that the "both-and" approach of the Cockcroft report from the Eighties is preferable to the "either-or" approach suggested here. There's surely nothing wrong with children constructing their own ideas at least some of the time, surely, TG; textbooks don't have to be an accompaniment to deadly dull teaching, JB.

One day maybe we'll find a consensus, but I'm not very hopeful. All rather sad.

Don Manley

Senior Commissioning Editor, Mathematics Education,

Oxford University Press

Ivy League? Only at the expense of the provinces

What an irony! The day Britain got a Nobel Prize for the research of a professor in a "provincial'' university, Gillian Shephard chose to talk about creating the Ivy League of Cambridge, Oxford and London Universities, thus dooming research in all other establishments! Well done, Mrs Shephard, you struck a chord in the hearts of all of us hard-working and grossly underpaid provincial academics. We won't be voting Conservative in the next election!

Maria Petrou,

Reader of Electronic and Electrical Engineering,

University of Surrey

In favouring an Ivy League, Mrs Shephard betrays the kind of heirarchical thinking that led excellent polytechnics to become mediocre universities. Survival in the global economy demands differentiation by function, not leagues. We need institutions of excellence which are clearly associated with areas of specialist learning, rather than the present morass in which every bog standard outfit plays "me too", offering MBAs and whatever else is fashionable, irrespective of competence.

Tom Kilcourse,

Colyton,

Devon

A girl's place in the lab

With reference to your leading article (9 October), I have been trying to encourage girls into science for about 20 years. While there has been some change in attitudes of parents, teachers, colleges and even employers, one of the main stumbling blocks is peer pressure. In front of a class of young teenage girls no one will withstand the taunts of her mates and admit to an interest in science (apart from biology). Any ideas on how to combat this would be welcome.

Dr Lesley Atkinson,

CSEST (Cornwall Women in Engineering Science and Technology),

Cambourne School of Mines,

University of Exeter,

Redruth, Cornwall

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