Friday, 5 June 2015

Hannah's sweets and the new GCSE.

Well what a furore the Edexcel Higher paper has caused! I am sure no maths teacher who has any sort of presence online can have escaped noticing that our twitter feeds, facebook pages and even BBC news have been reporting the pupils dissatisfaction with the Higher GCSE paper and in particular the second half. The storm seems to have centred on a couple of questions, one being Hannah and her sweets. The question reads as follows (if you somehow haven't seen it)!
"Hannah has n sweets in a bag. Six of the sweets are orange, the rest of the sweets are yellow.
The probability that Hannah eats two orange sweets is 1/3. Show that n^2 - n - 90 = 0."
Never has a question received such criticism. It has had Edexcel Higher tier pupils across the land calling for lower grade boundaries, calling out examiners for unfair questions etc. Year 11 pupils up and down the country have been raging about it. And one of my Year 9 girls solved it in under 3 minutes.

For me this brings home exactly why the new GCSE has become necessary. This question was a relatively straightforward application of conditional probability and quadratics (or algebraic fractions if you prefer) which required very little in the way of interpretation and yet it stumped so many Year 11 pupils. Never has it been driven home exactly why a renewed focus on problem solving, interpreting and communicating mathematics is necessary for if our top Year 11 pupils (and apparently one rather dense breakfast journalist) are struggling with it then this is a clear indication that our pupils are not being given the skills to understand the mathematics they are doing. To be fair she did solve it by solving the quadratic (giving n = 10) and then showing the tree diagram to find the probability of two orange sweets does equal 1/3, but it seems that was a lot better than a lot of pupils did.

I normally limit my posts to sharing practice, as that is where my passion is, but my passions were enflamed by the furore around this question when it is actually something I would expect most higher tier candidates to at least begin to access. If your pupils are the ones tweeting and shouting about how unfair the paper was, then I would be talking to them about why they found it so difficult; and if you are the journalist who is cannot solve this question then drop me a line and I will give you a few top up lessons!