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The last years of the 20th century saw the spread of the belief that the best way to make schools perform well was to bring the utmost pressure on both teachers and students. This belief is certainly mistaken.

In sports as far apart as tennis and snooker, it is taken for granted that pressure tends to bring about a worsening of performance. In a situation where the loss of the next game or the next frame could be fatal, the player has to exert great self-control to prevent the muscles from tightening and the play deteriorating. This is somewhat paradoxical. In a situation where it is unusually important to play well, the effect is to make bad play more likely.

There is reason to believe that a similar effect occurs in mental activities. There is such a thing as examination nerves. An examination is a time when it is most desirable to do well, but the effect of the stress may well be to produce mental paralysis; the examinee fails to answer questions which in other circumstances would be dealt with calmly and efficiently.

This error, excessive pressure, was much less common earlier in the century. Of course some students were flummoxed by exams and the visit of an inspector to a school was an important event. I do not have printed evidence of this to hand, but my recollection is that in the middle of this century inspectors were told to recommend changes they thought desirable, but not to command them.

I remember giving talks, sponsored by inspectors, about this time. The teachers certainly did not give the impression of being browbeaten. Someone once congratulated me because, when I suggested some idea and the teachers tore it to bits, I would rise from this knocking down and repeat the suggestion.

Absence of fixed curriculum.

Some interesting evidence is provided by the Ministry of Education pamphlet 36, issued in 1958, Teaching Mathematics in Secondary Schools. It envisages great flexibility at the discretion of the teacher. It quotes extensively from the 1919 report of the Mathematical Association. This stresses the importance of students succeeding, and says that here mathematics has advantages; "the tasks can be graduated nicely to the powers of the worker; there is never any necessity to set hopeless tasks." The school should be equipped to educate both the average student and the student of genius.[1]

A unique experience.

The very favourable situation in which the Mathematical Association report was written, to the best of my belief, never happened in any other country; over a period of years, the university students with the strongest records at research level decided to become school teachers rather than university lecturers. The reason may have been that, from 1867 to 1902, schoolteachers had fought a determined battle for the reform of mathematical education against the opposition of hidebound university mathematicians. Whatever the reason, that was the situation in the early years of the century; the outstanding mathematicians were in the schools. ( For instance, Macaulay, head of mathematics at St. Paul's School, became an F.R.S. in 1928.) They were thus able to appreciate the possibility of there being a genius among their students. It is to their credit that they recognized the need to cater for the average and below average student.

Recognizing children's interests.

I remember a Ministry publication from this wiser era that came later in the century, Mathematics in Primary Schools. The central idea was that teaching should relate to things that interested children. Some of the activities that had been used were not particularly unusual. For instance children apparently found estimating the area of a room by covering the floor with newspapers quite interesting. On another occasion, a class had been on a nature walk and collected various creatures. The question then arose, "What shall we do with them?" Someone suggested,"See how fast they can travel", so a caterpillar was persuaded to walk along a foot ruler and the time taken. (This must have been before metrication.) An essay, subsequently written by a young girl, ran somerthing as follows.

"First the time to cover a mile at the observed speed was calculated. City Hall was a mile away from the school. It was found that, if the caterpillar started out at breakfast time on Monday, it would arrive at City Hall at teatime on Wednesday". Finally it noted,"This does not allow for stops for meals or the traffic."

In all of this there is not the slightest sign of pressure or compulsion. With competent teaching, these are quite unnecessary.


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Cambridge CB4 1HE.


Pamphlet 36, p.13. and p.15.

Copyright © W. W. Sawyer & Mark Alder 2000

This version: 18th January 2001


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