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O/L Maths and advanced studies in the Arts Stream

(January 20, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The decision taken by the education authorities to allow students who fail to obtain a pass in O/L Mathematics to proceed to Advanced Level studies in the Arts Stream has to be categorized as a retrograde step, whichever way one looks at it. Up to now, mathematics has been considered a ‘Compulsory’ subject for very good reasons. The development of human knowledge in general owes a great deal to this key discipline, and it will be a great mistake to think that subjects such as Arts, Humanities and Law have little to do with Mathematics. Who says that Mathematics has not contributed to the development of disciplines of Music and Art and advanced studies of Human civilizations? Some of the greatest early thinkers and philosophers of the world were also mathematicians and it is quite possible that their knowledge of mathematics helped them to organize their thoughts better.

A well known writer on mathematics education, W. W. Sawyer, once defined mathematics as ‘Classification and study of all possible patterns’ and went on to assert that life and certainly intellectual life, is only possible, because there are certain regularities (patterns) in the world. As for economics, a subject I am familiar with, there is hardly any issue. Those who doubt the connection between mathematics and economics should glance through an academic paper published in a recent issue of a reputed journal to get some idea of the kind of mathematics used by economic researchers these days. It is possible that some such papers are required reading for those who follow even the undergraduate courses in economics. Anyone who did not have at least the O/L Maths competence will be placed in a very difficult situation, if he /she underestimates the mathematical knowledge requirement for economics studies.

Let us examine one aspect of the consequences of this short-sighted measure. When the subject of mathematics is demoted from the status of a compulsory subject, a large group of students will cease to have any serious interest in the subject. How large will this group be? Consider the fact that only 6 to 7 percent of the schools in Sri Lanka have facilities to teach science subjects. Then we can see that about 90 percent of the students sitting for the O/L may cease to take much interest in the subject of mathematics after this. This is unfortunate, but understandable, because there is the usual severe competition to obtain high grades in the other compulsory and optional subjects. What has not perhaps received adequate attention is that this indifference can trickle down to even lower grades. Needless to say, the teachers themselves will eventually give low priority to the teaching of mathematics. Therefore, this policy of restricting the compulsory mathematics requirement to a small minority of O/L candidates will be a prescription for creating a Maths-Illiterate generation. How such a generation will take to acquiring IT and computer skills so essential to fit into the modern world of work is anybody’s guess.

In formulating correct policy, we need to learn from our own past experiences. There was a somewhat similar situation when Sinhala was made the official language back in 1956. Spurred on by extreme nationalist sentiments, certain misguided elements saw to it that teaching of English was neglected or abandoned altogether in some schools. This ended up in a severe deterioration in the standards of English education in the whole country, except perhaps in the North. History has a habit of repeating itself, unless we learn its lessons.

Referring to a different historical scenario, which has some relevance to our argument, in 1957, the Soviet Union made the spectacular achievement of successfully placing the Satellite ‘Sputnik I’ in earth’s orbit and demonstrated to the world that it was ahead of the US and the western world in technology. In the context of the then raging Cold War, this humiliating set- back led the western powers to conduct serious introspection to find out what went wrong and what should be done to restore their supremacy in technology. One important outcome of this endeavour was the implementation of far reaching reforms in their Science and Mathematics education at all levels. The reforms included not only a modernization of curricula and re-training of teachers, but also popularising the learning of these subjects. All primary and secondary school children were encouraged to learn mathematics. In particular, there was no attempt to exclude anyone from mathematics education. We in Sri Lanka seem to be doing just the opposite by demoting mathematics. Clearly, such an unfortunate situation cannot be reconciled with Sri Lanka’s declared ambition of becoming a ‘Knowledge Hub’. 

- S.A.K.  Tell a Friend

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