Institute for Democracy from Mathematics – Letter of Support

Colin Hannaford

Ms Delia Stafford,
Haberman Foundation.

fao Mr Jimmy Kilpatrick,

5th November 2006.


Dear Ms Stafford,

I was a head of mathematics (and latterly, also head of ethics) for twenty five years in the British European School, near Oxford, England.

This is one of twelve international schools, originally created to educate the children of the officials of the European Union. Although they are now more open, they are still essentially very elite schools.

But not easy! In their final two years the pupils must show satisfactory progress in up 12 subjects, and finally must gain a Baccalaureate certificate for university entry anywhere in Europe – and in the States – showing that they have passed five written exams with at least four oral.

So, this is a tough course. As might be expected, the average pupils come from international professional families. Their natural abilities and their academic expectations are generally high.

Correspondingly, the overall performance of all these schools is also high. During my tenure, the pupils of my own School achieved the highest overall Baccalaureate averages of all twelve Schools repeatedly for many years.

My own specialism was always remedial math. This meant I had always a Baccalaureate class in which most had never succeeded in maths, most of whom I had never met before, but all of whom I had now to help to pass a final obligatory exam. It was here that I found the most puzzling contradiction. Although many of these pupils were clearly very bright, for some reason they could not pass their exams. Why was this?

Because of my long length of service, I was able to compare the teaching styles of many of my European colleagues. The most obvious fact to come to light was that no matter what the style or the skills they employed, all my colleagues had the same basic problem that I had. It was that of getting a class to answer honestly.

In the constant hurry to: ‘finish the syllabus’ – the bane of both the teachers’ and the pupils’ lives – this is a factor too easily overlooked. The value of an honest relationship with one’s pupils is important in any subject. But because maths is so cumulative, in maths it is essential. Once students get into the habit of concealing an uncertainty about what they understand, they will need to conceal more and more confusion as they grow older. Eventually many will depend entirely on ‘solving’ rote problems in a rote manner: thus forcing their teachers into a never-to-be-admitted conspiracy to set them just these well-known ‘problems’ if the majority are to pass exams at all. Even the mighty Baccalaureate could be made immune.

The teachers of these Schools are held to be amongst the best in Europe. Most are indeed impressive. Their national education cultures are still distinct, and are often very different. The administrators of the Schools vary more widely, for they are selected to represent the different countries of the Union and some have less teaching experience than their staff. Considering the pupils, however, both their international backgrounds and modern communication have the effect of producing much more uniformity. They are generally cheerful, courteous, sensible – and ambitious.

In these Schools we have, therefore, a corps of superbly trained, experienced, and motivated teachers all teaching – in variously different ways – approximately the same kind of able and ambitious pupils.

Yet some of these fail every year: very often without understanding why.

The most important fact to bear in mind is that none of these Schools suffered from any of the faults or defects of so many obviously failing schools. What, then, might be the common factor amongst all these very different, very able teachers and their pupils that could explain why they also fail? And could this same factor explain why there must be a conspiracy between pupils and teachers to ensure that so many can pass exams without properly understanding either what they are doing that is right, or wrong?

The answer that I found is both very simple and surprising. It is simple because its name is just one word. It is surprising because educators have accepted it as an obvious necessity for millennia. Once upon a time – it is true – it did not matter very much. The actual corpus of necessary knowledge was small. There was little interdependence within it. And, perhaps most important of all, most of it could be learnt by rote. Creative and constructive thinking was also far too dangerous to be taught: actually, to anyone.

Today, all has changed. Yet this factor has not changed. Even more serious than our failure to initiate and support truly constructive and creative thinking, is that we have not learnt to deal with the very different demands that modern societies make on our and our young people’s moral and spiritual health. Instead of developing a common and compassionate new address to these problems, we leave our societies open to division by ancient, but still deliberately exclusive traditions, whilst at the same time allowing a slowly corrupting cynicism to sap our youngsters’ spiritual and moral health.

What is needed, therefore, I agree, is: a forum for reforming education in every country in the world, by bringing programs, products and human compassion together in one room every one or two years”.

If I can take part, I will travel gladly to that room to tell what I have learnt.


Colin Hannaford,