Who is Richard Skemp?

  • November 13, 2004
  • James Skemp
  • article

Checking my referrers, I often ran across the phrase ‘Richard Skemp’ (sometimes with initial caps, often without). Since I like to be able to help people, I figured I would take a look at whom this individual is. The following is what I was able to learn from my foray into the information online.

Mathematics is a necessary tool in everyday life. One of the problems, however, that I often find myself thinking about, is how you teach someone math. I know how to do math, but I don’t really remember how I was taught – I have a hard time teaching others. One would think that, after having been taught mathematics for so many years, I would be able to teach someone else. However, that is not the case. If I were placed before a number of young students, I would not be able to teach them the general rules of mathematics, but I would be able to assist them with any particular problem that they had.

Professor Richard Skemp appears to have been dealing with this very problem during his life. How do teachers teach mathematics? While I was unable to find his often quoted paper online, I was able to find one of his papers, Theoretical Foundations of Problem Solving, and was able to read through it (you can read this paper, and possibly more in the future, at http://homepage.mac.com/davidtall/davidtallhome/skemp/papers.html). Here he discusses the hateful (until you understand how to do them) word problems as one of the most difficult, but most rewarding, ways to teach mathematics. Simply teaching the rules one abides by are quite easy, but teaching someone how to determine which rules to use is anything but. Of course, this is really true of almost anything – applying specific rules to particulars is easy, since you need only plug the necessary information into the relevant positions, while determining what rules to use, and what to put where, can be quite challenging.

A perfect example of this is logic problems. You can buy a magazine of logic problems, at most places that sell magazines, which are filled with problems that need to be solved, with the help of a number of paragraphs with clues leading to the solution. Using particular rules of logic, which are typically common sense, the solution can easily be found (since all of the premises are enough to reach a conclusion. Yet, they all first require a kind of knowledge about these rules, whether it comes from experience or not (depending upon who you listen to). Maybe that’s somewhat off track, but it doesn’t sound like it – I think Richard Skemp would also be interested in this kind of knowledge as well.