The aim of this journal is to foster awareness of philosophical aspects of mathematics education and mathematics, understood broadly to include most kinds of theoretical reflection; to freely disseminate new thinking in these areas to interested persons; to encourage informal communication, dialogue and international co-operation between teachers, scholars and others engaged in such research and reflections.
In keeping with the aims of the journal the editorial hand is used very lightly. This is an international unrefereed journal which aims to stimulate the sharing of ideas for no other reason than an interest in the ideas and love of discussion among its contributors and readers. If a contribution has some relevance to the broad areas of interest concerned, and contains some features of value it will be included; and these criteria are used very liberally.
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There is no overall theme to this issue. There are philosophical reflections on mathematics, reports of mathematics education reflections and research, items on the public understanding of mathematics, and news items. Although largely euro- and anglo-centric, the issue has a better representation of world issues and languages.
The journal is made possible by the generous support of University of Exeter. Special thanks go to Mrs. Pam Rosenthall, Mathematics Technician at the School of Education for technical assistance in publishing this journal on the web. Any opinions expressed here are personal to the author(s) and not the responsibility of the University of Exeter.
In the UK we are now coming to the end of the New Labour Government's second year in office. After 18 years of right wing anti-educational conservative governments are we living through the dawning of a new golden age for education? Sadly, I think not. Although new money has been spent on education in a number of useful ways, such as reducing class sizes for first school children (age 4-7 years), which is one of a number of real achievements by this government, there are three developments that I consider to be unforgivable.
First, there is the continuing assumption (inherited from the conservatives) that heaping more assessments on schools and going 'back-to-basics' is the way to improve schooling. I expected a more thoughtful and progressive approach from Labour. Rather than any careful reflection on what should be the aims of education in a post-industrial society, there is a strong subscription to what I called the Technological Pragmatist ideology. This involves overriding utilitarian aims for education, and automatic support for anything related to industry, commerce, technology, narrow basic skills and skill certification in education. The subscription to these values is so strong and uncritical it overrides any concerns with rounded personal development (such as the arts in primary education), personal empowerment (such as critical mathematical literacy, democratic or related social skills), or creative student work (such as project or investigational work). The new government exhibits no curiosity or doubts about its aims and programme, or concern about its evidential foundation, and simply dictates its educational policy from the centre on the basis, recently established by the conservatives, that "It's my ball, so I'll make up the rules".
Second, teacher education has become more and more centrally regulated over the past 15 years. Of course public accountability is both desirable and necessary, but for 15 years the government has imposed a set of tight aims, procedures and regulations, and then as we conform to the required changes, criticised teacher education for being misconceived. Thus central policy has been a continuous cycle of ever changing goals and higher hoops to jump through, followed by criticism. Under the conservatives this was fuelled by the Industrial Trainers who in power and in New Right think-tanks critiqued teacher education for being Marxist instead of politically neutral, obsessed with irrelevant PC-isms (anti-sexism and anti-racism) rather than good old fashioned school subjects, and for being theory rather than practice driven. All these charges are patently untrue as anyone working in teacher education knows. The primary concerns are subject matter knowledge, subject pedagogy and practical teaching practice. Even if we didn't think these are the most important things for future teachers (which all of us in teacher education do) strictly enforced government regulations upon which our accreditation depends would prevented us doing anything else anyway.
To ensure that their heavy handed agenda was implemented conservative governments created the Teacher Training Agency and placed well known members of New Right think tanks in charge of all of its committees to conduct an ideologically driven assault on teacher education and its progressive values. So what did the New Labour Government do on taking over the running of teacher education? It sustained and endorsed the activities of the Teacher Training Agency in establishing a National Curriculum for Teacher Education, in conjunction with Department for Education and Employment (the government ministry of education). The primary school version of this, specifying the required legal basis for primary teacher education, does not mention history, geography, foreign languages, dance, drama, or music, even though these are in the National Curriculum for schools. In contrast, there are 15 pages specifying in great detail the mathematical content of teacher education for future primary school teachers in all specialisms (all of whom must obtain at least a grade C in the General Certificate of Secondary Education examination in mathematics before entering teacher training). Of the actual content specified 40% of this space is on Number and arithmetic and 33% is the devoted to other mathematical content (Data handling 7%, Algebra and pre-algebra 7%, Shape and space 7%, Measurement 4%, Problem Solving 4%, Proof 2%, Information Technology in mathematics 2%). The Number and arithmetic is not high level stuff for university students (as the trainees are) but basic number, as an analysis of the terms used illustrates (taken from "Restoring Discipline ..." paper, included p. below).
Frequency of terms in Curriculum for primary teacher education
Frequency of occurrence
Numbers, numerals, counting, numeracy
Calculating, computations, operations, algorithm
'+' used arithmetically (not algebraically)
tables, multiplication, 'x' used arithmetically
Decimals, place value, decimal point '.'
Overall, in the regulations teachers are regarded as skilled operatives rather than as reflective professionals, with teacher knowledge and intellectual skills being 'dumbed down'. A restricting and restricted view of mathematics is embodied in the proposals, one which fails to deepen and extend student teachers' understanding of mathematics as a whole. An autocratic and insensitive pedagogy is both promoted and embodied in the new regulations (teaching is mentioned 72 times but learning only 5 times), and if successfully implemented might bring back the fear and negative attitudes traditionally associated with school mathematics.
These new regulations were made into law under the new Labour government, which therefore both endorses and must bear full responsibility for them. It is not too strong to say that the Labour government is at a stroke denigrating and destroying the lifelong work of education professionals to sustain and improve the quality of teacher education.
Third, the minister of education, David Blunkett, has publicly voiced his opinion that educational research is, en bloc, a waste of public resources and time. The government has tacitly and explicitly supporting an assault on educational research by its agencies. The impartial Her Majesty's Inspectorate of yesteryear, politicised and privatised by previous conservative governments, has been reborn as the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED). Chief Inspector Woodhead has gone on record many times opining that all educational research is valueless. He commissioned a lightweight study by a tyro researcher and well known educational free-marketeer which confirmed his opinion in 1998. The head of the Teacher Training Agency has also indicated her view that most educational research is of little value. The Education Minister also commissioned a study of the value of educational research by an Institute of Population Studies in 1998. This rather less ideologically motivated report (it was written by academics) found that although there is good educational research, little of it is useful to government or for immediate policy implementation. David Blunkett was rather less balanced in his condemnation of educational research as useless.
So what has the dawn of New Labour brought education? In all, we have a refusal to consider any fundamental questions such as the aims of education, an unwillingness to listen to expert opinion, the 'dumbing down' of teacher education, and an anti-intellectual attack on research, the greatest threat to academic freedom in education in Britain that we have ever experienced.
In conclusion, let me offer a more positive vision of the purpose of educational research.
If we take in our hand any volume of educational research, let us ask, does it contain any reasoning in support of current educational policy? No. Does it contain any experimental classroom research demonstrating the effectiveness of whole class teaching? No. Commit it then to the flames for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion, or worse yet, educational theory. (With apologies to David Hume)
As the above remarks show, the purpose and usefulness of educational research are being questioned. David Hargreaves, Alan Smithers, Chris Woodhead, Anthea Millett and David Blunkett have criticised educational research for classroom irrelevance and for a failure to raise standards of educational achievement. What they seem to want are findings that can be immediately applied to change educational practices resulting in measurable improvements, and their complaint is that too little educational research provides this.
However such criticism is not new. In 1971 A. Yates was pessimistic about the role of research in educational change. "Why isn't educational research more useful?" was the question addressed by Henry M. Levin in 1978. Levin argued that research and policy are and should be in conflict, because they represent different aims and cultures. On the one hand, policy is short term and decision orientated. On the other hand, research is long term and knowledge orientated. Sometimes research can help policy, but it usually takes too long. In addition, good research is very cagey about claiming to provide sure-fire solutions to problems and is very careful about over-generalising or assuming that applications are easily made.
Policy makers have to be pragmatic, and have to go with what looks like the best way for social improvement and without all these doubts and caveats. So they grow impatient with good research. But to reject research because it does not serve their immediate ends is narrow and short-sighted.
Thus there is pressure on educational researchers to deliver prescriptions for effective schooling, as opposed to more reflective studies including descriptions of educational practices. However policy-makers' quests for prescriptions are often based on questionable assumptions. e.g.
"Schools are designed for learning but do not always operate at maximum efficiency; and like a motor need fine tuning"
But schools are historical institutions in which past practices dominate, often operating to instil conformity and obedience, not creative individualism and entrepreneurialism
"Identification and trialing of successful teaching and organisational techniques will provide recipes for improvement"
But teaching and organisational techniques cannot be easily detached from their contexts and transferred
"Implementation of these recipes will bring about the desired improved standards of achievement"
But implementation is notoriously problematic because of different participant interpretations, contextual constraints, and conflicts of interest in intended areas of application
The question still remains, why is educational research valuable? I wish to argue that there are at least five reasons why educational research is important and valuable.
1. Some research is of immediate and obvious usefulness
Plenty of examples can be found of research which
Such research needs little justification and presumably represents that part of research which the critics say should be retained
2. Some research enhances education in the long but not short term
3. Helping the development of educational professionals
It can provide:
4. Research provides an essential social critique which is necessary in a democracy
Free thought, the critique of the present state of affairs in education, in our case, is an essential part of the functioning of any democratic society
5. Research is an essential part of higher education, adding to the sum of human knowledge
Educational research is a special form of interdisciplinary inquiry linking other disciplines with learning and the role of knowledge in society
I'm not arguing that all of this must be funded, just that a 100 flowers must be allowed to bloom, for all of our sakes.
H. M. Levin (1978). Why isn't educational research more useful?, in D. S. Anderson and B. J. Biddle, Eds. (1991) Knowledge for Policy, London: Falmer, pp. 70-78.
A. Yates (1971) The Role of Research in Educational Change, Palo Alto, Pacific Books.
© The Author 1999