Resist this makeover madness

October 18, 2002

Academics who teach 'unpopular' subjects such as maths need to challenge students, not dumb down the subject, says Frank Furedi

Another academic year. Another depressing statistic. According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the number of students applying to study for a degree in mathematics has dropped by 12 per cent this October. It is bad enough that maths is becoming an endangered British university discipline. What is worse is that we can no longer have confidence that the new university undergraduate possesses basic mathematical skills. As a result, universities are forced to offer special tuition in maths to bring students up to speed.

These days, whenever a subject is deemed too difficult or regarded as unfashionable, the instinct is to increase its appeal by making it less challenging. In the case of maths, this approach is all too evident long before students arrive at university.

It was reported recently that the maths AS level was being revised after teachers and pupils complained that it was too hard. Lowering the standard of examination is justified on the grounds that something has to be done to prevent the steady decline in the number of students who take their maths A level. It appears that the number of pupils who went on from AS-level maths to take the A2 level this year fell by 12,000.

Unfortunately, maths suffers from an image problem. Rightly or wrongly, people believe that it requires disciplined thinking and that, therefore, it is hard. These perceptions are unlikely to alter even if the maths curriculum is made more user-friendly. In any case, a subject such as maths is more difficult to dumb down than, say, the social sciences. In the social sciences, you simply take out the difficult theoretical and analytical bits and replace them with material validating and affirming students' experience. In contrast, getting maths undergraduates to reflect on their experience of trying to learn the times tables would probably jar a bit too much with the past ethos of the discipline.

Another approach adopted to increase the appeal of unpopular subjects is to give them a make-over. This has been tested in engineering, where, according to reports, some courses have been rebranded as "technology", "manufacture" or "creation".

This summer, it was reported that a growing interest in forensic science, as opposed to forensic medicine, created by police dramas on television has boosted student interest in this subject. During the past five years, this formerly esoteric subject has expanded and is being taught in 90 universities. According to Clive Steele, who directs the forensic science course at South Bank University, the appeal of this subject has been used in some institutions "as a last-ditch attempt" to save threatened subjects such as chemistry.

Often colleagues complain that young people are too distracted by the latest fashion or the appeal of easy money. It is always their fault that a particular discipline does not prosper. No doubt cultural and economic factors play an important role in influencing the choices that young people make, but maybe the fault lies with us. The problem begins in school, where too often the educators opt to appease rather than challenge. When students arrive at university, instead of appealing to their idealism and hunger to learn, we often pragmatically accommodate. As a result, no subject is genuinely popular, some are just more tolerated than others.

So-called unpopular subjects such as maths experience these problems in a more extreme form than most disciplines. Piloting a forensic maths course will not save this subject. The only alternative is to promote this discipline by instilling in students a curiosity and love for the subject. In the case of maths, this has to begin in school. In the meantime, instead of pragmatically accepting "realities", academics should concentrate on engaging with their students' active side and challenge them a bit more.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent at Canterbury.

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