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Teaching maths and the “Soviet” mistake

“The Soviet Union was world-renowned for maths and science instruction but that failed to translate into a strong economy. Similarly, the UK has some of the top universities in the world yet has experienced stagnant growth for the last decade. Prosperity requires creating the right institutional environment for entrepreneurship, not dictating curriculums from the top.”

Matthew Lesh, Director of Public Policy and Communications, at the UK-based Institute of Economic Affairs, the UK think tank. (The quote is from an emailed press release I was sent today.) He responded to UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s comments on the case for extending the teaching of maths and how far too many people think it is okay to be poor at the subject. (I used to be poor at maths, but certainly did not wear that as a silly badge of pride.)

Lesh’s point, however, is certainly worth focusing on. Being good at certain subjects and having knowledge about subjects is not the same as having a flourishing economy, particularly if one has oppressively high taxes, heavy regulations, spending on flashy projects such as HS2 that crowd out private investment, etc. At the margins, having a more maths-literate population might have a positive effect if, for example, more people can get their heads around statistics – and how they can be manipulated – and important concepts for business and finance such as compound interest, for example. Of course, in an age when the teaching of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) gets more attention, this all fits.

Here is a paper from Stanford University about maths skills and economic growth.

I do worry that Mr Sunak, in his understandable and laudable desire to encourage teaching and better grasp of such subjects, can come across as assuming that this might be a sort of silver bullet to the UK’s economic woes. As the Lesh comment about Soviet Russia shows, having lots of maths whizzes in a country is no good if the underlying economics is poor. And by the way, a lot of those Russian maths aces, such as those of Jewish descent, emigrated to Israel as soon as they could, which explains, among other things, why Israel has been a STEM and start-up powerhouse.

On a final point, I remember some years ago (I cannot find the link, sorry) watching a televised talk by Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 and Gemini astronaut, given at MIT. He talked about teaching, and about why there needs to be another “E” in the STEM acronym: E for English. There’s no point in having all this knowledge if you are lousy at communicating it. He’s right. An example of how to communicate complex ideas brilliantly and clearly is that of Edward Chancellor in his recent book The Price of Time, where he writes about interest rates, and why manipulation of them is dangerous and a folly that goes back centuries. It is an outstanding case of clear exposition, fascinating facts and an enjoyable tone of voice.

23 comments to Teaching maths and the “Soviet” mistake

  • Y. Knott

    – Gee, I wonder if lower taxes, fewer regulations and cheaper electricity would help? Naaaaahhhhhhh…

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    I agree with all you say, but as someone who once taught remedial mathematics, I would like to throw in another observation: sometimes people who are bad at maths and know they are bad at maths can be better at appreciating the scary power of compound interest than more mathematically confident people. I realise this contradicts the well-attested Dunning-Kruger effect, but I do remember observing it when I was a teacher. It could be as simple as having observed someone in their family get themselves horribly in debt.

  • Peter MacFarlane

    There was an assertion in today’s DT that “eight million adults have lower numeracy skills than would be expected of a nine-year-old”. There’s no reference, and no indication of how this was derived (of course!), nor which particular nine-year olds are being compared – privately-educated ones? Chinese ones?

    Leaving aside the snark, if this statistic is even approximately true it certainly explains why so many people are so easily bamboozled by e.g. Covid statistics, or Net Zero plans.

  • Fred Z

    Intelligence and related skills are the least important of the factors that make a person successful. I have found, to my pain, that a strong work ethic, persistence and honesty are far more useful than intelligence and math.

    Part of the rage from our “intelligentsia” is because of this. They always find themselves working for less intelligent high achiever people who work hard and persistently and run honest businesses. Even worse those achievers are often uncouth, and, double plus worse, they laugh at the intelligentsia’s pretensions and failures.

  • bobby b

    This seems to touch on the age-old controversy of, should education be the teaching of facts and skills and equations and processes, or should it be the more expansive teaching of “how to think?”

    Given the right set of teachers, I can see the value of the second scenario. Learn how to think, and the world is your oyster, and you can always pick up math if needed.

    But there is a downside. Given the wrong set of teachers, you end up with a system that slights the facts and equations and moves directly into the teachers’ political loves such as Critical Legal and Critical Racial Theory.

    In the USA, we made that move away from learning “things” and into learning “how to think”, and it has been taken over by the teaching of broad social values that mirror the beliefs of the teachers. To our cost.

    When limiting education to the factual, skills-based areas – STEM, actually – the political biases of the teaching unions is of lesser importance than when we allow them to teach “proper thought.”

    Perhaps this is Sunak’s method of lessening the influence of politically-driven teaching? Move to STEM, drive out the crit-theory?

    Teaching “how to think” is great, unless the teachers don’t think as you do.

  • druid144

    Can I ask that you have more diversity (sorry!) in your book purchase links? There is more to reading than just the big A: this for instance https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-price-of-time/edward-chancellor/9780241569160

  • druid144

    I think it is perfectly reasonable that good teaching will give most pupils a solid grounding in the three Rs in the first seven years up to 11 or 12. If the teaching has failed the children by then, it is highly unlikely that the next seven years up to 18 will give any improvement. (Insert Jesuit quote here.)

  • Kirk

    The entire concept behind schooling is dysfunctional in the extreme.

    Who said it was ever a good idea to put lots and lots of children together, essentially unsupervised, and then let them raise themselves as ferals? When has that ever worked, pray tell, and why did we adopt this concept of child rearing and education in the first damn place?

    I think it’s well past the time to acknowledge that it a.) doesn’t work, and b.) is positively detrimental to civilization.

    Most of the ills we think of that are associated with the young stem from the fact that they’re not integrated into adult society until they’re formally weaned from childhood/adolescence. This is occurring later and later in life, and is it any coincidence that it’s connected to things like young adult dysfunctional mental health issues?

    I think the handwriting is pretty plain on the wall: We’re doing it wrong.

    You do not, in any way, shape, or form, want your kids socialization to come from other unsupervised kids their age. Not in person, not online, not at all. You wonder why so many kids turn out screwed up, out of even decent families? Peers. Pure and simple, it’s not your kids you need to worry about so much as it is those other families who’re essentially raising ferals. People talk about the need for socialization, but the raw fact is, the sort of socialization matters even more than the kids getting it. You put your children into a school dominated by gangs? What the hell do you expect, when they turn out to be gangster thugs, despite all your best efforts?

    Most of the institutions we have are corrupted. If you entrust your children, your legacy to them, the people running those institutions have no interest in looking out for you, your kids, or anything else besides their own generally screwed-up agendas. They don’t care about educating your kids; they are far more concerned with indoctrinating them with the shibboleth of the moment, rather than ensuring your kids can function in society and help maintain it.

    Schools are not the answer, I fear. I have no idea what is, but if you think a few tweaks of this existing system, where it’s all Lord of the Flies outside the distracted attention span of the few actual adults running the insane asylums we call “schools”, well… You’re out of your damn minds.

    The actual problems begin with the entire premise, to be quite honest. There really should not be any such thing as this benighted “childhood” and prolonged “adolescence”. We never had such things before the 19th Century, and I’m entirely unconvinced that they’re at all necessary now.

    The root goal we should be working towards is the creation and perpetuation of self-actuating adults with agency for their own actions, who understand their roles in society and how it all works. Schools and families today are not producing such people, and the reason is that parents have signed over all responsibility for doing so to the agencies of the state, which doesn’t really give a damn about such petty concerns as ensuring your kids will carry on your culture and your values.

    I look back on it, and I feel like most of my schooling was utterly wasted. The problems for me began and ended with the pointless game-like atmosphere of the entire endeavor. Nothing practical was ever demonstrated with regards to things like math; it wasn’t until early adulthood that I encountered anything in my actual lived experience that required me to use the tools that mathematics provides a person. Until then, it was all seemingly endless pointless make-work, like those idiotic “find a word” puzzles that so delight bad teachers everywhere.

    You want to fix education? Start by doing away with about 99.99% of what we’re laughably terming “schooling”. In all honesty, it’s more “conditioning” for rote-work slaves than it is anything else; pure Pavlovian stimulus-response, in tune to bells. There’s nothing there in the modern school that even begins to approach how people usually learn, which is in fits and starts, punctuated by intuitive leaps of understanding. You can be right on the edge of understanding a concept, only to have the bell ring, the class end, and your comprehension never arrive because of what might best be termed “educationus interruptus“.

    Modern schooling is set up for the fussy little girls who love organizing their desks and making pretty little scrapbooks far more than they do actually learning things. It’s all focused on that; paradise for the head girls of the world. Who’ve taken over, everywhere else.

    Much to our mutual detriment.

  • James Strong

    Sunak probably doesn’t understand what Maths is. It is desirable that everybody be competent at arithmetic and some applications. (Elsewhere on this thread somebody mentioned compund interest.) Almost nobody needs anything beyond the most simple geometry, and probably no algebra at all.
    Maths is very important indeed, but it’s not at all necessary for most people’s lives and wouldn’t improve those people’s lives.

  • llamas

    @ bobby b. – it’s not either/or, it’s BOTH. You can’t teach someone ‘how to think’ unless they are also taught basic literacy and numeracy, either before or while teaching ‘how to think’. And we’re not discussing integral calculus or Fourier transforms here – some of the coverage surrounding Nr Sunak’s remarks makes it clear that a great proportion of the UK’s young people lack basic arithmetic skills, of the kind required to balance a chequebook, or figure the interest on a loan payment, or derate the current capacity of service conductors. You can’tvtrain skilled thinkers if they can’t count.



  • llamas

    And a further thought – the quoted article makes the observation that, while the former Soviet Union placed great emphasis on teaching what are now generally referred to as ‘STEM’ subjects to a very high standard, but that this did not translate into the development of a strong economy. But it’s a misleading assertion, because one thing’s for sure – regardless of all the other factors described as being required for a ‘strong economy’, it will never be achieved with a population that is deficient in what used to be considered basic literacy and numeracy.

    I shall now put on my ‘old fogey’ hat. For those on the US side of the water, ‘O’ level is at age 15-16, ‘A’-level is at age 17-18.

    When I took ‘O’-level maths, by the light of a flickering candle, it included differential calculus (preparatory to integral calculus at ‘A’-level), plenty of geometry (To Euclid – and beyond!), lots of stats and probability, plenty of algebra (basic and linear) – and this was considered the ‘ordinary’ or ‘O’-level requirement for math proficiency at that age. In order to plan for the Physics ‘A’-level, I had to take the ‘additional maths’ ‘O’-level one year later, so you can imagine what that was like, and even then, I could not take the Physics ‘A’-level without also taking the Maths ‘A’-level – no way you could do the physics without the maths.

    And I wasn’t some Sheldon Cooper STEM-obsessed monomaniac – I ended up with 14 ‘O’-levels, ranging from math to Latin to geography, and 4 ‘A’-levels, and I was by no means an unusual student, so we had plenty of material of all sorts being stuffed into our young skulls.

    I read the current curriculum for the UK maths ‘O’-level, and it made me laugh – I’ve forgotten 75% of the math I was taught more than 50 years ago, and I could still wax that curriculum. And yet I see that the pass rates even at that laughable standard of math education is declining rapidly


    and I’m led to the conclusion that the UK is rapidly becoming an nation that’s effectively innumerate.

    I don’t mean piddling matters like shop clerks who can’t make the right change, which is what these discussions rapidly degrade into, although that’s bad enough – I mean whole generations who have no grasp of any of the most basic concepts required to master virtually-any-other complex skillset.

    In among all that ‘O’- and ‘A’-levelling, I found time to devour all the works of Heinlein, and one quote has always stayed with me.

    “Pick a savage so far back in the jungle that they don’t even have installment-plan buying. Say he has an I.Q. of 190 and Peewee’s yen to understand. Dump him into Brookhaven Atomic Laboratories. How much will he learn? With all possible help?

    He’ll learn which corridors lead to what rooms and he’ll learn that a purple trefoil means “Danger!”

    That’s all. Not because he can’t; remember he’s a supergenius – but he needs twenty years schooling before he can ask the right questions and understand the answers.”



  • Paul Marks

    There was nothing much wrong with the teaching of mathematics and science in the 1980s in the Soviet Union – but the state and collectively owned economy did not work for reasons that Herbert Spencer would have understood in “Man Versus the State” (1884) let alone Mises in “Socialism” or “Human Action”.

    The last section of Mises’ “Socialism” is called “Destructionism” and covers such things as high government spending, taxes and regulations – Herbert Spencer had also explained why such “Interventionist” (French term) policies led to disaster. Mises had already explained in “Theory of Money and Credit” (1912) that fiat money and Credit Bubble banking lead to disaster – although Richard Cantillon had got there before him (back in the 1700s).

    The United Kingdom follows such policies, and has done for a long time, as do most other major Western nations.

    Even if everyone in the United Kingdom had a high degree of knowledge about mathematics and the natural sciences – the economy would not due well due to the Credit Money system, Bubble financial system, and very high government spending, taxes and regulations.

  • Paul Marks

    The interesting question is not will the British, American (and so on) economies do well – of course they will not do well. The great question is – when will they finally collapse?

    “There is an awful lot of ruin in a great nation” – it is astonishing just how much utterly terrible policy Western economies have managed to take without collapsing. But no matter how strong a person is – if government, and the Credit Bubble banks, keep hitting them over the head with a claw hammer, that person will eventually go down.

    I think the next few years will see the collapse of major American cities such as New York and Chicago – and, yes Prime Minister Sunak, their horrible “Progressive” education system is part of the reason for their decline – but only part.

  • JohnK


    I think Net Zero will be the final nail in the coffin. Germany has just decommissioned their last three nuclear reactors, as if the energy crisis following the invasion of Ukraine did not happen.

    No modern industrial or post-industrial state can run on wind power, but that seems to be the belief of the British and German governments. At least the British government still professes to believe in nuclear power, but the one reactor being built will not make up for the ones which will need to be retired soon.

    So you can have a modern society, or you can have Net Zero. You can’t have both. The blithe belief amongst our governing “elites” that you can is merely proof of their slide into decadence. Unless things change, they will take us all down with them.

  • rhoda klapp

    If the people in charge of education (the teachers and admin, not ministers) have produced the problem we have now, ought they to remain in charge?

    Consider that question rhetorical. And note that Sunak has still got the answer wrong.

  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker) Gray

    I have often read that Sunak is a self-made Billionaire, so he must know something about money.

  • Martin

    Sunak is a millionaire from investment banking etc but as far as I’m aware it’s his wife’s family who are the billionaires as they own an Indian IT business.

  • Zerren Yeoville

    Notice, incidentally, that there is now a concerted effort to turn STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) into STEAM with the addition of Arts. Will it devalue the whole concept, we may well wonder?

    Questioner: “So, how did you all get your first-class degrees, may I ask?”

    Science graduate: “I developed a promising new technique to combat pancreatic cancer by stimulating the Islets of Langerhans to increase hormone production.”

    Engineering graduate: “I designed a 600m-high viaduct to carry a six-lane motorway across a 2km-wide valley using 15% less metal than any previous design.”

    Arts graduate: “I glued six tampons to a cheap seaside-gift-shop print of three kittens in a basket and called it ‘Searing Critique Of Consumer Capitalism #17.”

  • Colli

    Almost nobody needs anything beyond the most simple geometry, and probably no algebra at all.

    If you want to understand how the world around you works, I think you definitely do need more. Mathematics is not simply arithmetic.
    Most concepts in science which shaped the modern world and led to the industrial revolution did not come about by asking esoteric questions which have no practical application, but very simple, fundamental ones, which led to a deeper understanding in science and then the ability to apply that in engineering.
    To understand the answers to such simple questions does certainly require an understanding of mathematics beyond the most simple geometry.
    If someone wants to do things that have already been done before, they probably don’t need much mathematics. But if they want to expand on what has been done or apply concepts in a different way, they first have to understand the concepts which underlie what they are doing, which generally requires some level of abstraction to mathematics.

    For example, we have had the base understanding of mechanics to be able to make a wooden table since ancient times. But if we want to use our knowledge of structure and take that knowledge to build a railway bridge, that’s when we have to use mathematics.

  • Paul Marks

    JohnK – what the German government has done is indeed madness.

    As for the general cults (both Net Zero – and the cultural cults such as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) the People’s Republic of China Communist Party Dictatorship laughs as the West destroys itself.

  • Paul Marks

    Nicholas Grey – there is no connection at all between being rich and being careful with taxpayer money.

    Nor is there any connection between being a businessman and being pro deregulation – indeed many business types (especially bankers) love very large and interventionist government.

  • jgh

    At school I was atrocious at English Literature. It was all “making stuff up”, which is another word for “lying”.

    And then in O levels, I did Technology. Which involved documenting processes, procedures, tests, and results. FACTS. Not lying. And being a computer designer/coder/hardware nerd, I got into documenting my own creations. FACTS. Not lying.

    This was 40 years ago. I pride myself in my English language composition, but again it is all FACTS, not lying. This skill underlies my coding, my hardware design, my local government report writing, my election leaflets. The additional ‘E’ in STEM is crucial, and it must be taught in an appropriate way that allows pupils to build up and develop the skills.

    (I can guarantee there’ll be a typo in the above!)

  • jgh

    “They” want to force Art into STEAM because STEM is too difficult, and everybody must win, so everybody must have a STEAM qualification.