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Think Pieces

This think-piece is one of a series intended to raise issues resulting from the Transmaths series of research projects. Each think-piece is focused on a major theme that emerged from the research and is designed to be brief and provocative. More details of the research underpinning the ideas presented here can be found in the publications database. We invite you to join the debate if you wish (details of how to do this are given below).

Use and exchange value in education

Have you ever felt that you must just get a good grade in maths - even if you know you will never, ever use the stuff you are being asked to learn? For many at GCSE, this is the case – getting a grade C is what it is all about so that they eventually get into their chosen career. For some of the minority who progress to A Level this may then become their experience: struggling to get grades whilst studying topics that have no immediate or potential future use.

On occasions we all have the feeling that we need the “exchange value” of maths even if we don’t, at least for the moment, appreciate its “use”. We should not be surprised, then, if students, and their parents, pay great attention to the exchange value of mathematics (through qualifications) at the expense of appreciating its ‘use’.

However, the problem arises when there is a contradiction or conflict between exchange-value and usefulness. This can happen in a number of different ways. Most immediately, a student’s focus on exchange value, or ‘scoring in the test/exam’ may become ‘performance’ orientated and procedural, indeed surface-orientated (in Marton’s sense) at the expense of depth of understanding. This can be dangerous for the students’ development and understanding in the long term, both in mathematics and the other subjects they choose to study.

This danger can be reinforced by a tendency for educational institutions to orient themselves towards exchange value – prioritising getting high scores on tests so as to gain a better league table position.

Possibly the worst excesses of this trend we observed in our research led to potentially unethical practices, where resources were deployed to optimise league table performance at the expense of the best outcomes for students. It is common in schools, for example, to find resources focused on the few students whose improved outcomes in tests might optimise the appearance of school success. Pedagogy in such an environment is inclined to deviate from what policy suggests is ‘good practice’ (i.e. connectionist teaching) with teachers being transmissionist as they teach to the test and with students developing procedural understanding through surface learning. In some cases students may be encouraged to take inappropriate courses, enter GCSE early, and even drop mathematics post-16 to study ‘easier’ subjects. In such cases the values of the institution can become close to being unethical.

There are a number of measures that might be taken to alleviate this problem. First, assessment tasks might align better with the need to encourage useful outcomes such as ‘conceptual understanding’ and problem solving skills; this might also involve promoting a broad range of useful skills and dispositions and not only procedural fluency. Second, performance management of leaders and teachers should be disconnected from students’ test scores, and teachers should thereby be encouraged to develop what policy suggests is effective teaching /pedagogy aimed at ‘useful mathematics’ for learners’ development, independent of learning outcomes as measured by tests. Finally, the teaching profession needs to develop a stronger ethical code: teachers need to be encouraged to blow the whistle on bad practices, and students and their families, and other stakeholders need to be helped to challenge constructively the worst effects of performance management in our institutions. A degree of transparency in educational management will be required to facilitate this.

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