Manifesto for the marmite subject

‘What’s wrong with maths?’ – an important question and one being put to teachers, researchers and policymakers at a debate organised by Cambridge Assessment today. The Perse is one of three schools to have shared their experiences in a specially-commissioned short film to launch the conference.

The British public seems to have a Marmite approach to maths – love it or hate it or, more mathematically, a binary response of 1 or 0. As Perse Deputy Head and maths teacher Paul Baker says in the film, society defends or excuses people saying ‘I’m not very good at maths’, yet they would be unlikely to dismiss illiteracy so lightly. Are we short-changing ourselves by accepting inadequate skills?

Relative to other countries, things do not appear totally ‘right’ with maths in the UK. Analysis by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) puts the UK 28th out of 65 OECD countries for performance in maths. To mark the conference and this important debate, here are some thoughts on how to ensure students get a better maths education.

  1. Invest in good maths teachers. It is an unfortunate rite of passage for talented sixth formers in many schools to discover that they know more maths than their teacher. On the flip side the brightest mathematicians are not always the best teachers; if they understand concepts first time they don’t always get why others might struggle. As student debt increases, the UK must invest in attracting graduates with potential to be inspiring maths teachers rather than lose them to big business offering generous golden hellos.
  2. Maths is a building block subject and firm foundations need to be laid at primary level. Each new layer of concepts needs to be carefully explored and thoroughly understood to ensure there are no conceptual gaps that impede future learning.
  3. Foster confidence. If pupils doubt their own abilities and begin to panic things can unwind. Setting boosts confidence – most of the time. In top sets students are stretched beyond the boundaries of their comfort zone. In bottoms sets teachers’ support and commitment to tackling student perceptions that they ‘can’t do maths’ help them blossom.
  4. Make it OK to get it wrong. Getting it wrong is a core part of the process. Students are more likely to remember the correct method having tried an incorrect one. They need to have multiple strategies to tackle a problem and be unafraid to employ them. Making a mistake, if constructively responded to, creates an excellent landmark by which students can navigate in future work.
  5. Contextualise problems. Putting a mathematical function in context can make it more accessible to those who do not immediately see its relevance. Exponential growth, for example, can be seen through the lens of modelling the spread of infectious diseases. Contextualisation teaches pupils how maths underpins science.
  6. See the bigger picture. Maths study should not be confined to the maths department; it turns up in the most unexpected of subjects. The association of maths and music for example may on first sight seem a peculiar one, maths being sometimes perceived as cool abstract logic and rationality, music as subjective, emotional and an outpouring of feeling. Yet there is a distinct relationship between the two, with a significant part of the latter underpinned by the science of the former. Without the mathematical organisation of rhythm, pulse and meter, the majority of Western tonal music would not have been able to exist. Maths also manifests itself in the architectural structure of a piece, the tuning systems for instruments and the organisation of harmony. Maths explains why some chords sound appealing and others do not.
  7. Promote extra-curricular opportunities. Experiences such as those provided by the UK Mathematics Trust enable students to consolidate and extend their knowledge, as well as have fun with their maths.

This year, one of the biggest cheers in a Perse assembly went up for the team who returned to School having won a testing maths challenge. Confidence in mathematics is life-enriching; the desire to identify life’s rich patterns is innate in all of us.  Let us make learning to succeed at maths a joyful experience for all.

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3 Responses to Manifesto for the marmite subject

  1. Rodney Dale says:

    And people so often say ‘maths’ when they mean ‘arithmetic’. I think nomenclature and definition should be sorted out unequivocally from the start.

  2. Philip says:

    In tutoring maths I’ve found that year 7/8/9 pupils do not actually understand as much as we think. They are able to follow a method, but don’t have the ability to check their answers. For example, a method to bisect a line could use a compass. How do we tell the line we draw is correct. We could measure the length, check it’s perpendicular. How many would actually think about bisecting it again, with a different arc length? The same goes for adding fractions. They can follow a method, but have no concept of whether the answer is right!
    Basically we don’t teach (having spoken to a friend who is head of maths) how to find things out ourselves and check our results. We simply teach a method and are pleased if they get the right answer!

  3. Philip says:

    I’ve also found that not all teachers are capable of supporting basic maths. A year 8 student of mine sometimes has another qualified teacher supporting him in maths and is unable to help with understanding simple ideas such as rotational symmetry and lines of symmetry. Am I wrong in thinking all teachers should have a strong mathematics and english background?

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