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Maths projects

TES forum picture

TES forum

Last week I updated my personal and work web sites for the first time in far too long and I changed the look of this blog. It doesn’t work perfectly yet as some of the colours and spacing are wrong. And I should get rid of that banner at the top – it’s looking a bit old.

On a different topic, I’ve been criticized over on the TES forum for my mechanic analogy. I thought it was good analogy, but PaulDG disagrees:

As with all analogies, and having only read those few paragraphs of his work, I’m afraid it looks to me as if he’s the sort of “expert” who’s got us into the problems we’re currently in.

Ouch. He then gives a straw man a thorough thrashing and finishes with

Houston appears from his analogy to be in favour of understanding without skills.

This seems rather illogical: Houston wants students to do more of A and less of B therefore he doesn’t want students to do any B. To be honest I can’t see how anyone could have such a reading of what I said. I was tempted to jump into action with a shout of “Someone is wrong on the internet, I must intervene” but after some reflection I decided to just read the rest of the thread.

So, the thread itself is about a very important topic — maths projects in schools. As someone who is trying to prepare a projects module for second year students I am aware how difficult it is to prepare good projects. The problem at all levels, school or university, is that it is very hard to set “medium strength” projects – they are either too easy or too hard. I think the key difficulty is in fact identified by my critic

There’s a reason why almost everyone in any project team in the “real world” will be a graduate in something and that most people in most teams will have 5 years+ experience of working in that sector, that industry and with considerable specialist knowledge.

Kids just do not have the skills to bring to the table to access anything of significance.

To some extent (even though the guy has unfairly criticized me) I do agree with that last comment. It is hard for students to bring something to the table. In other subjects you can say “go and find out about X” and call it a project. But if you set a real mathematical problem, then generally most students will not be able to answer it without significant training in the maths and even then most need to be given a big hint to use it! My response however is not to admit defeat but to try to find ways to incorporate project work. One is reason is that I disagree with the first part of PaulDG’s comment. Project work is not done by highly experienced teams in the real world. Ex-students often tell me that they are pitched right into being key members of a project. One told me that she was amazed that straight out of university and after only a few weeks into her accountancy job she was grilling the CEO of a multi-million pound business about problems in the accounts.

I don’t think we should ignore this problem of incorporating group work just because it is hard. That still leaves the question of what works well as a project topic. Anyone got any good ideas?

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