More about the teaching of higher mathematics

I managed to irritate one or two people here yesterday; not for the first and almost certainly not for the last time. I wonder if those commenting really thought that I was advocating the securing to stakes and pelting with filth of those who failed effectively to motivate their children in the study of mathematics? If so, it is time now to reveal that this was meant humorously!

In the coming week I want to look at home education in the secondary years, with particular reference to subjects which parents themselves found hard or disliked at school. All too often, we as parents transmit these prejudices and neuroses to our children, so that you will have families with a tradition of art and music, while others tend towards science. This certainly happens in schooling families and I strongly suspect that it is even more common in home educating families.

Today though, I want briefly to mention one or two personal things about my own daughter’s education and the peculiar man who supervised it. By the age of sixteen she had passed eight International GCSEs, all at A*. These were English language, English literature, mathematics, history, physics, biology, chemistry and religious studies. She had also gained Grade 6 (bronze medal) at acting with LAMDA, as well as Grade 5 classical guitar and Grade 2 piano with the ABRSM. She had no lessons or tutoring in any of those subjects, except by me.

Now I wonder if readers think that all this was because I am some sort of Renaissance Man or Victorian polymath? Do they perhaps think that I am a musician in the morning, who acts at weekends and has a passionate interest in science and mathematics? Not a bit of it. I literally cannot play a single note on the guitar, nor have I ever acted, even at school. As for mathematics, I know hardly anything about the subject and was a complete failure at school. It was my worst subject. Readers are now perhaps scratching their heads, saying to themselves, ’Hang on a minute, wasn’t he talking about the joys of higher mathematics yesterday and rabbiting on about calculus? Somethings’s not right here!’

I shall be expanding upon this idea in the next week or so, but for now I will say that all I know about calculus is that it is concerned with changing motion and figuring out the area under curves. That is it; the sum total of my knowledge. My daughter needed calculus for her maths IGCSE and did it so well that she went on to get an A* in the subject at A level. How can this be, if I was such a duffer at maths and disliked the subject? What about physics? Surely I must be a specialist at that? Nothing of the sort.

This is only a short post, but I want to leave you with this thought. If I did not think that I could have provided my daughter with an education at least as rich and varied, as well as academically sound, as that which she would have received at the best of schools; I should never have embarked upon the enterprise in the first place. True, I had other motives, but this would have been an irreducible minimum, whatever other reasons I might have had for wanting to home educate.

Educating children at home has nothing to do with knowing about subjects. Nor does it, or perhaps I should say that it should not, have any connection with which things one enjoyed at school or found difficult there. Anybody can teach their child literally anything at all; from calculus to piano, from acting to chemistry. It requires no prior knowledge and will not produce misery in any child. Before I finish, I must leave readers with a simple question. I have a reputation as being a highly structured, school-at-home type of home educator; one who taught, rather than allowed his child to learn naturally. Here is the question. Does anybody believe for a moment that it would be possible to get a child to work hard enough at the guitar to pass grade 5, unless the child was a willing partner in the process? Can anybody imagine forcing, against her wishes, a child of twelve to study calculus? Or biology, acting or anything else? If they can visualise such a neurotic and driven child, forced on by an unforgiving and fanatically pushy parent to over-achieve in all areas, simply to obey his wishes; well then, all I can say is that such people must have a vastly more vivid imagination that my own! It is quite literally impossible to get a two year-old to eat a carrot. How less likely is it that one would be able to persuade, against her will, an adolescent to study mathematics. As I say, I shall be looking at secondary education in the next few weeks and exploring this whole idea in more detail.


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