*Ooh! OOOHH!! The Shanghai Method. Sounds exciting. Sounds…. Like an 80s electropop band. Like a sexual perversion. Like…. a mathematics teaching method? Surely not. (Surely some mistake? Ed.)*

Well, it’s inevitable that I should at first be cautious about this, given my despair at the stupidly rapid rate of change in education. (See The only constant in education is change.) The Shanghai method looks to my increasingly out of touch and uninformed eye like yet another new initiative, which will transform mathematics education, raise standards, make the tea, solve global warming…. and so on.

Apparently everybody succeeds; the class does not move on until all have grasped the skill/ concept/ whatever. For my youngest daughter, who at the age of 13 still cannot add two single digit numbers, I am sure this will work wonders, as it will for the 9 year olds I taught last year who could use index notation confidently.

This is probably all curmudgeonish grumbling, but I also wonder what standards we are talking about raising here. Clearly I don’t know the full picture.

I have taken my first tentative stabs at setting out discussion points for the future of education. (See So, what would YOU do about education? Part 2.) In it I mentioned the late Terry Pratchett’s view that children should be taught enough maths to “know when a pocket calculator is lying”.)

Allow me a digression here. At one point, I intended to write a post on mathematical illiteracy. No, I don’t mean innumeracy. To me that implies a lack of understanding of numbers and their basic manipulation. I mean a lack of understanding of the use of mathematics- the application of mathematics.

I think that this is incredibly important. Indeed, I increasingly feel that, for most students, functional mathematics should be taught far more.

You only have to look around to see examples of mathematical illiteracy. This picture is of a price tag. Mathematically, it’s wrong. Is it 4.5 of a pound or 4.5 of a penny? (Substitute euros and cents if you like.) Obviously the first (£4.50) is intended.You may very well argue that this is mathematical pedantry, but it does obstruct children forming clear concepts. This to me is akin to the ‘bigger half’ error. Halves are equal; one cannot be bigger than the other. We all know what is meant, but it’s not correct and again muddles children (and adults).

We could go on to the opinion poll fallacy. “33% of the population prefer dark chocolate.” No they don’t. A third of the (three) people I surveyed prefer dark chocolate. It’s even worse if the proportions are scaled up: “2o million British people prefer dark chocolate.” There are examples daily.

There, that digression has spared you a separate mathematical illiteracy blogpost.To return to Mr Pratchett (well done if you’re still with me), I increasingly feel that much mathematical education is wasted on most children. When did you ever use the mathematics you were taught at school? Alright, teachers, be quiet at the back there. Engineers…. Physicists…. Any others? Yes, me…. but usually only for fun, or when I need to get to sleep. Really.

There are no doubt arguments against restricting mathematics teaching to functional mathematics, or to what the child chooses to learn. How do you know what mathematics a child will need in later life, or what aptitudes they will show later? When we are short of mathematicians and physicists, should we not encourage mathematics and physics? Should we in fact push every child to higher standards, to ensure that the ‘base’ level of achievement rises and thus the best get better.

So, as usual, I come up with no firm conclusions. After pondering over this I am still drawn towards functional mathematics for all and further adventures for the able and willing. I am aware this is a feeling, not a closely argued case. And hey, I’m not secretary of state for education. And at the back of my mind is the cry: “Stop messing teachers about and let them get on with it.”