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Maths Education and the Metric System

September 7th, 2008

alecmce

The following conversation in Metric Views catches the attention both for the interesting article and the subsequent comments.

Metric Views: Are our schools entrenching the ‘very British mess’?

The gist is that our schools reflect our current social muddle by teaching both imperial and metric measures and their relative magnitudes in school. In the article it is argued that the time and cost wasted on this is horrifying.

I have no love of imperial measures; I find it frustrating to have to remember how many pounds are in a stone, or ounces in a pound, or yards in a mile, and struggle to do so. I also find it difficult to convert between anything other than kilometers and miles. I know my weight in stone, but not in pounds, and certainly not in kilograms. I know my height in both metres and feet-and-inches. I am not sure that I can estimate volume in any unit with any degree of accuracy. It’s a horrible, muddy, confusing mess; that is undeniable.

I think my misgivings about the article are about the underlying idea that we should stop teaching both measures to achieve a feat of social engineering; by removing from the minds of the youth any conception of imperial measures, we would hasten the demise of imperial measures, which would be a Good Thing.

My difficulty is that feet-and-inches is such a good measure of height. I am 1.83m or 183cm, but neither is as satisfying as being 6′ tall, and neither is immediately conjourable in my mind. I don’t like Americans’ removal of ‘stone’ as a measurement either; 13 (and a bit) stone is much easier to remember than… whatever number of kilograms or pounds I am.

Feet, inches, stones and pounds are good measures because they are useful. They give us a scale rooted in humanity and the measurement of humans, and allow us to compare ourselves with others accurately. I am not convinced that the removal of these measures in classrooms will remove their common use.

I should not be confused with someone in defence of a curriculum which monitors and assesses the knowledge of different weights and measures and their conversion. Conversion is a fairly dry arithmetical topic. However, there might be problems that involve imperial or metric measures (or even their conversion) which may contain some good mathematics. I would not want that potential to be excluded from the curriculum any more than I would want their being taught made compulsory.