The Project Maths initiative has been in the press recently and the response has been largely negative from the Irish Times letter writers, including a couple of students. Being naturally conservative on matters educational – I’m a member of the Norman Tebbit ‘get on your bike and study’ club – my natural instinct was to be very sceptical of the whole Project Maths thing.
The students complained of the ‘experimental’ aspect of the learning experience, something that I have to say does trouble me a bit. Surely if there is anything that gives maths its uniqueness it’s its reliance on pure logic rather than experimentation. You shouldn’t have to throw a dice (or is that die?) to deduce that the probability of getting a six is 1/6.
Anyway, I bought a book of sample papers and had a good look through them. The standard seemed reasonably good but it is hard to know how it will pan out over a long period. If the questions become very predictable, we’ll be back to the whole rote learning problem, despite the ‘project’ terminology.
The curious thing about the syllabus seems to be the huge emphasis on data interpretation, probability and statistics, and geometry. Some of the questions seemed to simply involve remembering stuff and I didn’t see the point in asking people to calculate correlation coefficients by hand. The syllabus seems very narrow indeed and the glaring omission seems to be calculus. Calculus is a huge part of modern applied mathematics and engineering – building bridges, analysis of chemical reactors, designing machines and designing electrical circuits all involve differential equations. Not to mention sending rockets to the moon. The idea seems to be to leave calculus until third level.
More fundamentally, though, leaving out calculus is like leaving Shakespeare out of the English syllabus – it really is one of the crowning glories of human achievement in my humble opinion.
Ultimately, it is hard to see this initiative really achieving anything. The only reason that there will be an increased uptake of Honours Maths is if there is a perception that it has become easier. I think the numbers who are genuinely interested in maths for maths sake will always remain relatively small and fiddling around with the higher level syllabus won’t really change that. Unless of course we are content to delude ourselves.
I think we need to focus on ordinary level maths and make sure it is of a decent standard. From talking to my students, they felt that it was much too easy and perhaps an intermediate level is required for those wishing to do science and similar courses at third level. All I know is that the level of basic maths that I am seeing at third level is shockingly low. Students seem to have a very poor grasp of very, very basic concepts such as the idea of a variable being represented by a letter.
Update: Just noticed there is some basic calculus there! However, the more I think about this initiative the less convinced I am of it. I notice the ‘Pylon Question’ appears quite a bit. I hope that’s not a sign of things to come.