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Maths degrees for maths teachers?

March 2, 2014

Recently, I’ve been having some discussion on twitter as to whether we think maths teachers should have maths degrees or whether it’s not necessary. Here are @Miss_Skinner’s thoughts:  TEACHER OR MATHEMATICIAN: DOES A MATHS TEACHER NEED A MATHS DEGREE?

@srcav, @johnthestatto and @jeremy_denton have also been involved in the discussion and myself and Colin Beveridge discussed this briefly on episode 12 of Wrong, but Useful.

My two main criteria for teaching maths (and I think anything) are:

  • Being sufficiently good at the topics you’re teaching to be confident and competent in explaining it to others,
  • An enthusiasm for the subject. You must like the thing you’re teaching.

Hopefully nothing too contentious there. This means that I don’t think a degree in maths is necessary for GCSE maths as, frankly, the vast majority of it is easy enough. If you are interested in maths but haven’t covered a topic, you should be able to get yourself to a position where you can teach it. This was true for me in the cases of Circle Theorems and Box Plots for example.

Having said that, I do think an A level is probably necessary. I don’t think I actually mean necessary but I would question why someone that thought they could teach maths didn’t choose it at A level. I’m sure there may be some cases where someone who was perfectly competent and met the criteria above didn’t choose to take A level maths but I’d be curious to know why and would certainly ask them about it. If you have an A level in maths and took it because you actually wanted to rather than because you were told it would be a good thing to take and so you did so grudgingly, then I reckon you’d be in a good position to teach GCSE maths.

I do believe that having a degree in maths (note that mine is a joint honours in maths/music) means you’re in a better position to handle some of the more niche areas of maths. Surds may well come up in an engineering based degree but I suspect not some others.

So in summary, for GCSE, I think you need the two things I put above. I think an A level is probably highly desirable and edging on necessary. I don’t think you need a degree in maths to teach it to GCSE. Note that I’m not saying anyone can teach GCSE maths, just that a degree in it isn’t a prerequisite.

Now, at A level, I’d say a degree in maths or something very maths heavy is almost always necessary. I would not be comfortable with someone who had a geography degree (which includes some statistics) teaching Core maths. The exception would be if they had an A level in maths were incredibly enthusiastic about is and did lots of recreational maths but for some reason, took a different degree. [I think @Miss_Skinner may be in this category but I’m not sure if she’d be happy about teaching A level.]

It’s probably worth saying that in my limited experience, even people with maths degrees struggle with some of the A level maths questions. This is especially true if it’s outside their maths comfort zone (mechanics for me) and I think you need to look very carefully at anyone you choose to teach  A level further maths. For example, I think that if I spent about 5 years teaching core maths (I don’t teach any and have never taught it) and along side that I worked on my own subject knowledge of Further Maths, then I could teach it. This is largely based on the fact that if I chose to do it, I would be sufficiently interested in knowing how to do it well that I would make sure I did a good job of it.

So far, I think GCSE maths teaching doesn’t require a GCSE and A level maths almost always does.

At primary school, which I admit I don’t have much experience of, I do think the enthusiasm point is even more valid. While I have no doubt that there is massive variation around the country and from school to school, I can talk of one case where I was talking to a primary school’s maths coordinator and the first thing she said was “I’m only doing this because nobody else would do it. I don’t really like maths.” I think there may still be teeth marks in my tongue. I should also talk of another maths coordinator I know who took  A level maths, loved it and actively volunteered to be the maths coordinator of her school.

Now, I would like to see primary school teachers with B grades at GCSE maths. This would mean that they had to have taken higher level GCSE maths and got about 50% correct. I might actually consider someone who’d taken foundation level GCSE and got virtually 100% correct. These thoughts are, clearly, not very well formed so I’ll leave them for the time being.

Similarly, I don’t know much about teaching at degree level and beyond but I’d assume that having at least the next qualification up was needed.

I think that in summary, it’s probably too hard to come with a simple Yes/No answer and there are likely to be exceptions.

Obviously, I’d be interested in your thoughts.

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  1. Great summary, thanks for sharing. I wholly agree with your two main criteria for a maths teacher. Sufficient knowledge to be confident and competent to explain the content and iron out misconceptions must be a minimum requirement, whether learnt recently or in own education.

    I also think that the A level should be a requirement to teach GCSE maths. On the pre-PGCE Maths Enhancement Course for those without a strong enough maths based degree, we were all required to have an A level in maths, and two trainees that didn’t were sitting it alongside the course. I think this is a good benchmark minimum requirement to teach at GCSE.

    Regarding A level, I don’t think I would be confident teaching the Further Maths syllabus yet, despite covering elements on the enhancement course. I think degree level mathematics is a lot more important here and whether I will ever feel happy teaching further maths I am not sure. Re. Stats, Decision and Mechanics 1 units, I think the capacity to teach these varies depending on individuals’ experience. I will look to teach these sooner, as biomechanics was a substantial part of my degree, and decision I got a lot of enjoyment from at A level.

    I think there a number of recipes for creating a great maths teacher and differing needs in differing schools will require a different teacher profile. I think as long as we all appreciate the different skills we can bring to the classroom and the positive effects we all have, we can all help make students’ experience of maths a great one.

  2. Great post Dave, I’ve been mulling this over a lot since OA broached it and Miss Skinner picked it up. Think I’ll blog about it this week.

  3. I think having a knowledge of the subject beyond the level at which you are teaching it is important. For an A level maths teacher, this might mean a physics degree or experience of working in engineering for example. Anything which might perhaps raise aspirations of your students and allow you to develop ideas beyond the curriculum for extension or enrichment. However, in spite of my A levels (Maths and FM) and my degree (MMath), I still had to teach myself S1 in order to teach it – I’d never studied any statistics. I have since also taught S2 (two different boards) but still feel somewhat of a charlatan when I’m explaining topics at the limits of my knowledge!

    • Hi.
      I suppose that being able to extend is something I hadn’t thought of. I somehow doubt that anyone without a degree in maths would be given a top set anyway though.
      Absolutely agree with the second part. I started teaching stats without really studying it very much before. Fortunately, since starting teaching, I’ve found it fascinating and have chosen to expand my own knowledge and understanding. I’ve done this partly through taking exams with the Royal Statistical Society. However, I agree that there are still some parts that I don’t fully understand so does that mean we shouldn’t be teaching maths?

      I’d be curious to know how this works in other subjects. Presumably many people teaching Geography are covering topics at GCSE level that they’ve never really studied before or perhaps don’t like?


  4. George permalink

    A very thoughtful post and overall I agree. A passion and joy for the subject coupled with adequate knowledge for the subject is a must. With competing magnets drawing on students interests a boring unenthusiastic teacher will draw few followers. Its amazing what a smiling teacher can do.

    I’m a 50+ year old retired business man who left school after failing my 11+ with zero qualifications who now, to help my son with GCSE maths, started to self-teach myself maths. I bought the GCSE foundation and higher text books added to hours of youtube videos with, hegartymaths and examsolutions. I was hooked, I love it, I read maths text books for pleasure and will sit my higher exam at the end of this year and then hopefully on to A-Levels. The reason for telling you this is, as a teenager my maths teacher was a nasty person who everyone feared and hence I hated maths. But now I realize I equated the subject maths with his distasteful personality. So teachers attitudes are crucial.

    My son who in year 8 was averaging 60% has now in year 9, in his last three in-school tests averaged 98%. We do puzzles together, see maths in everything, from his FIFA 14 PS3 football game where his payers are rated by percentages to reading books on spy codes to find sequences. Dare I say it, maths and fun can be in the same sentence.

    To your original thoughts, I’d say your sense of academic knowledge vs enthusiasm is in the right path. Being now so enthusiastic about maths I’d love to impart my love and little knowledge I have to others to capture their imagination. Give me a teacher at the limit of their knowledge but who clearly loves their subject to a dry, cold, factual lecture from a phd maths professor from Oxford any-day.

    Thanks for the post you made me ponder and I like that:-)

  5. Just to throw something into the mix, how important is it that the teacher appreciates beauty and elegance in the subject and can help their students see this for themselves? Can the teacher help the students become problem posers? For me, I love the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics to help understand and predict real world phenomena, but I don’t care so much that it does. I would study and teach it simply for its beauty as an art form. Whilst I know this thread is more about the minimum you need to be able to teach something, I feel that so many people never get to experience ‘real mathematics’ (not just drill, practice, closed investigation without any individual extension from the pupil or any choice of where to go, etc.) and that’s frustrating for any maths teacher who is asked to add up the bill at the end of a restaurant meal with friends. The world needs teachers who can help the masses understand that mathematics is infinitely greater than basic numeracy. Of course, helping students pass exams is important, but how much of that is simply the assessment driven culture of education which focuses on tiny questions that you need to answer in a short amount of time? Isn’t real mathematics the complete opposite of this? As you say above, they need an enthusiasm for the subject which is completely true – for me that means they need an enthusiasm for real mathematics. I know this is the idealistic perspective and there are great teachers out there who don’t think the same way – I simply wanted to come at it from a different angle. I care about my students passing exams to improve their life chances, but I care equally about them understanding what it means to be a mathematician.

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