Thanks to everyone who has contributed to our ‘What if…?’ debates series this year, whether as speakers, attendees, livestream viewers, or colleagues behind the scenes. We couldn’t have done it without you – literally, as they say far too much these days. Watch this space for the 2018/19 programme.
To round off the series for the 17/18 academic year we set our speakers the challenge of: What if… we wanted all kids to love maths? It was quickly established that this might be quite a tall order, and that getting all kids to not hate maths was a laudable enough goal. In exploring how that might be achieved we were joined by Professor Dame Celia Hoyles and Professor Jeremy Hodgen of the IOE; Craig Barton, teacher and creator of mrbartonmaths.com and Tom Francome, Lecturer in Secondary Mathematics at the University of Birmingham.
Maths arguably has a bit of a PR problem. It has, in the words of one of our panelists, the power to crush confidence like no other subject. It’s also often perceived as being just about long sums. And when it’s made relevant to real life, it’s all about the angle of ladders against a wall, or the cost of two apples minus the cost of a banana. The beauty of the structures and patterns in mathematics, or its role in humankind’s most awe-inspiring achievements, often gets lost. Meanwhile, many children, and adults, struggle to find maths interesting and lack confidence in using it, not least in England.
Our inability to remedy this hasn’t been for want of trying. Maths has received a lot of attention from our policy makers over the years. And while in most aspects of maths attainment things aren’t getting much worse, they’re generally not seeing rapid improvement either. Between the 2009 and 2015 PISA rankings, England remained resolutely average. Ditto for the 2007 and 2015 TIMSS rankings. England also remains unusual internationally in the still relatively low proportion of young people who study maths post-16. Similarly, we still don’t compare well in the maths content of our technical and vocational education.
In the panel’s view, where we have made progress is in the primary phase, via the National Numeracy Strategy (and especially number lines). The other point of consensus was the need for much greater stability in the curriculum as well as assessment and Ofsted requirements. If the panel were to countenance any change it would only be to reduce the curriculum content and amount of summative assessment, to leave much greater room for consolidation.
But that is policy. What about classroom practice – how can that help pupils not to hate maths? There was criticism of setting, which is commonplace in maths and which, beside the technical questions it raises, can breed complacency or resignation depending on the set. More surprisingly perhaps, our panel rejected as a strategy actively seeking to make maths relevant and engaging. Yes, you read that correctly: no more painting and decorating and trips to the greengrocer examples.
In the panel’s experience, helping pupils to feel successful will do most to boost their interest and attainment, and that is best achieved by the teacher teaching more, breaking down concepts and working through examples at the front of the class; formative assessment and the hard slog of practise. Our panelists were clear: leave relevance and discussion till after the class has grasped the concept in question.
What we can’t ignore is England’s teacher shortage in this subject. The supply of maths teachers has been an issue for at least 15 years, across all phases. We’re currently 4,400 maths teachers down at secondary level, and missing 13,000 primary maths specialists, so we need to make the most of the expertise we do have. Newly qualified teachers in particular can be surprised by the extent of pupils’ misconceptions when it comes to getting to grips with maths. Shared lesson plans developed by experienced maths teachers is one answer, primary maths specialists working across schools another. When it comes to raising the nation’s numerical literacy, collaboration not competition counts…
You can watch the maths debate in full here.
Look back over the series from this page and the accompanying blog posts: