Sir Vaughan Jones & New Zealand's Education System

By Michael Edmonds 05/10/2012


As I have mentioned elsewhere I recently bought a copy of “Made in NZ”, a book that talks to prominent New Zealanders about various topics. One of those profiled is Sir Vaughan Jones, one of the worlds leading mathematicians. In 1990 he was awarded the Field Medal and he is currently Professor of Mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley. In the book he makes the following comments about mathematics education.

… a discussion worth having in New Zealand is whether we are teaching mathematics to young children in the best and most effective way. It is highly debatable that we are. You do not learn mathematics by broad, general principles, you learn by experience and familiarity which build confidence. People are trying to teach kids broad concepts too early when, in fact, the best way to learn is the complete opposite. You learn by doing lots and lots of exercises until you get familiarity and confidence and can move to the next step.”

About the New Zealand education system he says

“We slavishly followed California from about the 1980s without asking why so many issues were being raised about those methods in the US, and we largely abandoned what had worked perfectly well. Integers, multiplication, addition and so on have not changed and never will!”

and

“Trying to fiddle with the current system and saying you are going to improve understanding by looking a different algorithms is an unproductive waste of time.”

It is interesting to read the views of a prominent mathematcian regarding our education system. If there is one thing I have learnt working in education it is that the only constant is change. Sometimes this is a good thing, if the focus is on improvement. But improvement is most likely to come from well thought out, evidence based changes. Too often I get the feeling that change is being done for changes sake, or is being rushed without thinking through what the evidence is really telling us. Sir Vaughan’s views certainly match my experience of learning mathematics.