Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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25/1/15: some things can be taught, while others....

Our academic year is now well under way, induction week and two further weeks already complete.  Golly time goes fast, recruitment for next year will be starting soon!  All indications so far looking very positive for an excellent with a great group of students, leaders already in a variety of education positions across East Africa, looking to build a clear theoretical basis to their work as an investment in the rest of their careers.  Have to say, when I get back to the fundamentals of the work we do here, it really does feel quite a privilege to be involved, real opportunity to make a difference to what happens in children's lives across the region.

Last Monday was our opening party, and as usual as head of programmes I was asked to speak.  Of course, with a completely new group of students starting this month it would be perfectly possible to recycle my speeches from year to year, but it feels important not to do that.  Students wouldn't know, but I would, and it seems to me to be a basic mark of respect to them to put some thought into what I'm going to say in starting the year off.

So, this time I took as my theme the idea that some things can be taught whilst others can't.  So, taking examples from mathematics, trigonometry would seem to be a topic which can be taught - whilst the underlying ideas are relatively complex, when it comes to it the answering of entry level trigonometry questions can be achieved by applying a set routine.  But ratio is a bit different - there are fewer ideas to get hold of, but answering questions does not fall back on set routines in the same way.  So, as a mathematics teacher, one can teach ratio to a point, one can model answers to questions, but there is a sense in which pupils are ultimately by themselves, without being able to fall back on memorisation which, at least in principle, will work with trigonometry.

So, coming away from mathematical examples, what about self-discipline?  Armies across the world and across the ages have depended on externally imposed discipline, as far as I can make out, this sometimes transforms into self-discipline but it sometimes doesn't.  Is it possible to work out in advance who will respond in this way to external discipline?  Are there ways of exerting discipline which are likely to convert to self-discipline?  I don't know.  Is it possible to teach self-discipline?  No, I don't think it is, ultimately it is up to the individual to decide how to live our lives - although in practice our choices may not feel particularly free.

Professionalism again is something which, I would want to suggest, cannot ultimately be taught.  We can teach about it, we can look at different conceptualisations, consider case studies, and we do all of these things and more.  But ultimately professionalism is about behaving differently to how we would wish to behave for immediate personal reasons, including venting how we feel, because of the role we have and the training we have undergone, working to a set of values which are looking to benefit other people (in the case of school teachers, children) and not serving ourselves in the short term.  Again, this cannot be taught, it is up to the individual to take these ideas on board - and, crucially, to pause to reflect after we find ourselves not working to the highest standards, with a view to being in a better position the next time difficulties come our way.

So, my call to our students is to take advantage of all opportunities offered as they take a year's leave from their professional roles to take the masters programme, to learn those things which can be taught, and also to learn those things which, ultimately, we have to teach ourselves.  Aware that, as a senior member of faculty, part of my responsibility is to practise what I preach.  I Can't give a categorical assurance to respond to all situations in an entirely professional manner, but I can promise that that is my aim.

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