Jerome Bruner, one of the most influential writers of our times in the fields of psychology and education, died aged 100 on June 5 2016. In this piece, I share some thoughts on the proposed adoption of the Beijing way of teaching and learning mathematics by the UK government, and as an homage to Bruner, discuss the proposal in the light of some of the ideas and issues he raised about instruction in mathematics.
The issues and challenges raised by Bruner are as pertinent today as they were at the time he wrote them over half a century ago. The policy announcement by the UK government to move towards an East Asian system of teaching mathematics (maths) – Beijing maths – is yet another attempt at raising standards in maths in the UK. The question remains however: why has successive policies and initiatives not delivered the desired improvements? Why the need for constant policy amendments? Yes, there is undoubtedly the need to ‘do something’ as the situation hasn’t been improving at the rate required for the UK to catch up with the best countries.
Changing the curriculum in this manner, appears analogically as fitting every player in my local football team – Gillingham FC – with the football boots worn by Messi and Ronaldo in the expectation that will propel the team to the premiership and subsequently winning the Champions League. It certainly requires more than that! How disappointing for us Medway folk. Well, the quest to improve the standards in maths in our schools certainly fits into that category. Simply changing the curriculum and method of teaching may not be enough in my opinion. There is a whole raft of issues to consider for any new initiative to have the desired impact.
I am not altogether skeptical about the proposed change. I think it has the potential to transform the teaching and learning of maths in the UK. However, I think there are structural issues that need to be addressed in order to have optimum benefits otherwise the benefits may be reaped in the middle class, leafy parts of towns leaving those who need it the most, the poorer working class, in the lurch.
Bruner wrote one of his most popular books on education – Toward a Theory of Instruction (1966) raising some issues surrounding teaching and learning in maths – issues he raised that rings true today. In the book, he emphasised elements of learner-centred education including: stimulate curiosity, develop competence, build community. These elements are as crucial today as they were in the 60s when Bruner wrote about them. Spending millions of pounds in the quest to raise standards in maths by introducing East Asian methods of teaching may be inadequate because as argued by Bruner half a century ago, learning does not take place in a vacuum. There are prerequisite dispositions and conditions that must be in place for optimum learning to occur.
In ‘lifting’ a curriculum from one country to the other, this observation by Bruner must be noted:
“there are differing attitudes towards intellectual activity in different social classes, the two sexes, different age groups, and different ethnic groupings”.
Consequently, Bruner argues that instruction must concern itself with the issue of how best to utilize a given cultural pattern in achieving particular learning objectives. To wit, Bruner seems to be suggesting that simply lifting a curriculum and a pattern of instruction (teaching) from one culture to the other may not be ideal when implemented wholesale. The differences in cultural contexts matter, and must be taken into account. One would hope this observation from Bruner will be taken into account when Beijing maths is implemented in the UK.
An element Bruner wrote about is the need to stimulate curiosity in learners. Instruction, he opined, should not aim to get learners to keep results to mind; rather, it is to enable learners to participate in the process that makes it possible to establish knowledge. Curiosity is the joy of exploration that makes children want to learn. Children must be enthused by learning – specifically maths – in this case. Curiosity will drive children to constantly and continuously seek out learning opportunities in maths. The immediate goals of grades and passing of tests are relegated to the background and they study and practice out of a desire to learn more about the subject – to become better mathematicians.
The current drive towards tests and grades could be an impediment to development of academic curiosity. Learning in order to simply pass tests results in a ‘performance orientation’ that takes away the desire to acquire learning for its own sake – a mastery orientation. The motivation of the government in adopting the famous ‘Beijing maths’ seems to be driven (probably inadvertently) by a ‘performance’ mindset and orientation. Confucian culture is able to safeguard learners in East Asia from a strictly performance mindset. This is because learning to gain mastery is a cultural and social obligation; so is learning to pass tests. Therefore, the impact of test taking on the children will be different in individualist UK culture. The question I dare ask is: are the policy makers aware of these ramifications and if not, why not? I wonder because the announcements made so far sound vacuous and looked like the policy makers had an assumption that changing the curriculum was going to be a silver bullet and panacea for the UK’s slide down international league tables.
A more ideal orientation, in my opinion, would be to target the incidence of low aspiration in underperforming communities in the UK. Raising aspiration has a better prospect of raising academic curiosity and motivation of children in our schools. Schools must be required to provide evidence they are working to tackle low aspiration alongside introduction of the new maths curriculum. In the era of multi-chain academies who centralise their budgets, schools with children who qualify for pupil premium funding may end up losing out. Funds could be diverted into other projects not necessarily benefitting the neediest of their children.
Bruner also stated that instruction must develop and specify the ways in which a particular subject should be structured so that it can be most readily grasped by the learner. Furthermore, it must specify the most effective sequences in which to present material to be learned. This area is one where Beijing maths might have its utility. UK maths curriculum designers might benefit from studying the way Beijing maths is structured and adopt/adapt from that. It might help with the design of a maths curriculum with better sequence and progression that enables learners to develop a better grasp of the basics of mathematics and the subsequent development of the more complex concepts. There may also be the need to make pedagogical changes in line with changes in curriculum and structure of teaching and learning due to adoption of Beijing maths.
In conclusion, I must reiterate I haven’t got any misgivings about adoption of Beijing maths in UK schools in principle. I think it may have benefits including helping to get the right balance in the depth versus breadth quandary. It might also lead to positive shifts in pedagogy among others. However, care must be taken not to simply ‘lift’ Beijing maths and implement it in the UK without giving thought to culture, personnel, structure and social considerations that could influence outcomes as argued by Jerome Bruner. Bruner raised pertinent issues in teaching and learning of maths that are very relevant today and in the context of the ‘Beijing maths adoption’, that must be heeded if optimum results are to be achieved. Hats off to Bruner, the education luminary, visionary and theorist, for his insight and impact that still resonates today and will be for the foreseeable future.