Calculating is fine, just don’t expect me to do any calculus


My last post about maths was a while ago so it’s time to put that right.

Copyright (c) 2004 Kaustuv Chaudhuri

Copyright (c) 2004 Kaustuv Chaudhuri

This Tuesday the English Department of Education announced it would be investing £20m in the development of new post16 ‘core’ mathematics qualifications, aimed at those students who drop maths too early, but would be capable of doing well and would find this useful for the study of other subjects and eventual entry to Higher Education (HE) and employment. The content details for this new core specifically say: “Other content from AS or A level Mathematics, including calculus, should not normally be included.” I’ll come to this in a moment.

As it happens, the Awarding Body OCR, part of Cambridge Assessment, has already launched a new qualification for first teaching in September 2014 called AS-level Quantitative Methods. Within it is a stand alone module called ‘Introduction to Quantitative Methods’, for which an initial certificate can be attained after only 60 hours of guided learning and a 1 and a half hour end-of-course exam. Both qualifications make no reference to ‘mathematics’ and provide the following warning to prospective candidates:

“It should be noted that the Level 3 and AS GCE Quantitative Methods qualifications contain no calculus, and that an AS or Advanced Level Mathematics (and possibly Further Mathematics) course is more suitable for students hoping to follow HE courses in Mathematics, Engineering or the Physical Sciences. Some other HE courses might prefer students to have achieved a Mathematics qualification rather than a Quantitative Methods qualification.”

I’ve highlighted ‘contain no calculus’ in bold as it is the nub of the ‘core’ maths issue for me, which if you remember from earlier on says that calculus ‘should not normally be included’.

Calculus is a big frightener for many English school and university students, while at the same time it is a requirement for a number of career pathways. This is why a textbook on maths for undergraduate biologists, which includes a large section about calculus, is endorsed by no less than Lord May of Oxford, a  past President of the Royal Society and a Nobel-equivalent winner in the biological sciences. The SCORE group of science organisations (including the Royal Society) produced a report on mathematics in Science A-levels a few years back, and there were a number of references to the need for more calculus in these post16 courses, especially for those doing Physics or Chemistry.

So in summary, if we can collectively crack our fear of calculus in England then perhaps we will have achieved something else of long-term significance, as well as greater progression in post16 maths. For this reason I hope very much that a current research project on participation in A-level Mathematics at the University of Nottingham will provide some helpful insights into the psychology behind calculus for varying profiles of student. This could drill down into the broader findings of the UPMAP project run at the Institute of Education, University of London, which concludes that young people can do well in post16 mathematics (and physics) if they can manifest conceptual understanding in the subject(s) and if they have been well taught.

On that last point, it would be good if someone in Government is starting to consider where all the future, trained and qualified post16 core maths/quantitative methods teachers in England will come from …

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2 thoughts on “Calculating is fine, just don’t expect me to do any calculus

  1. Pingback: Lots of new facts, but what will be the outcomes (for girls)? Part 2 | behrfacts

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