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Problems in Mathematics Education

October 20, 2019

MA Tweet

This tweet was sent out by the Mathematical Association and has generated a lot of replies. I’m going to try and summarise my thoughts in this post. It’s likely to be a long one!

I feel the need to preface all of this by saying that I know I’m not an expert and I may be wrong about some of these things. I do, however, have a fair bit of experience (teaching since 2001) and am sure that fixing some of the issues below would help.

Another quick caveat is that I’ve never taught in primary schools beyond the occasional one-off lesson and I’ve not taught in FE colleges either.

Content of the different stages

Primary

I’d like to start by saying that students are undoubtedly coming through to secondary with better number skills. Generally speaking, they are more competent at multiplying and dividing than I remember seeing in my early years of teaching.

A concern that has been raised multiple times is how much content there is to cover and the difficulty with doing it thoroughly. I’ve often felt that the primary school curriculum focuses too much on numerical fluency and doesn’t seem to value the broader concept of maths. I believe that this leads into a warped perception from a very early age of what ‘maths’ is and the linking of fast arithmetic with being ‘good at maths’. I am sure there are (potentially informal) mathematical reasoning ideas that deserve some focus at the beginning of students’ mathematical journey.

Secondary

Key stage three appears to be an absolute free-for-all with nobody really minding what you’re doing.

GCSE has too much content. The idea that you could competently cover all of the GCSE material in such a way that students understand it in two years is daft. The GCSE suffers from trying to be two different things: A badge to say you’re sufficiently good at maths, a stepping stone to post-16 study. I’m not at all convinced it does either of these jobs well and is exceptionally poor for the weakest of students. Some of the foundation tier topics are nonsense and the lack of much financial literacy across both tiers is silly. I think there is too much focus on pure maths (factorisation leading into algebraic fractions anyone?) without enough content about statistical literacy (being able to understand media claims) and some elements of decision maths (critical paths for example).

Key Stage Five

I can’t really say too much about this as I haven’t taught a year 13 class for the newest version of A level but the grade boundaries last year suggest something is wrong!

A glimmer of hope is the beginning of the rise of Core Maths and its attempt to put practical maths into the hands/minds of students. I do have concerns that some of this is too late and should really be in the GCSE material that everyone must do. Another concern is the variety of courses under the umbrella of Core Maths. This is an example of where I don’t mind there being multiple options but as a teacher trying to decide which one to run, it is far from clear what the differences are between them all and some clarity on whether the course you’ve chosen is designed to help chemists, engineers or social scientists would be useful.

Recruitment and Retention

A massive topic that I don’t have the skills to provide answers to but here goes any way…

Recruitment

Some serious thought needs to go in to thinking how to make teaching an attractive option. Throwing money at people to train and/or complete their first year isn’t an unreasonable idea but seeing teachers who are financially worse off in their second year, with more work to do, than they were in their teacher training year is not the way to get people to stay. I’m also not a fan of the message that Teach First sends in that it appears to say, “You’re successful at maths and could get a job that pays loads but would you mind doing us all a favour and sacrifice some of that pay for an incredibly tough job. First. You can move on to a ‘proper’ job after you’ve done your bit for society with a bit of teaching.”

Retention

Again, clearly a difficult thing to deal with but I’m not at all sure how we got to a stage where once you’ve been teaching 12 years (UPS 3 assuming you go through all the thresholds successfully), you’re never getting a pay rise again. I know that schools do have the flexibility to pay teachers different amounts but there are so many moral and morale issue attached to that that it just isn’t happening.

For me personally, I can’t keep doing the amount of work I am doing (with a modest TLR role) at the rate I’m doing it and continue teaching to whatever the retirement age will be when I get there. What might make me more likely to stay? Well, that’s a workload issue.

Workload

What is it I spend most of my time doing? Planning lessons, dealing with emails/tutor group issues and marking, probably in that order.

I find it incredible that after 18 years of teaching, I’m still planning lessons and finding myself working out how to go about teaching a topic to a class. When I was training, I had it in my head that after about 5 years or so, I’d probably have pretty much everything planned and ready to use. I was very, very wrong. There’s no doubt at all that it’s partly down to my lack of organisation but it just seems crazy that teachers are out there reinventing the wheel all the time. I’ve just found myself putting together some slides on nth term of linear sequences and I have no doubt that multiple teachers have done the same thing multiple times and they’re probably all pretty much the same. I firmly believe that a centrally planned set of comprehensive resources should be available. They should be produced by people/groups that are respected and they should be regularly updated based on feedback. I am well aware that many people hate this idea and want to be firmly in control of planning a bespoke set of activities for their own classes based on the children in front of them. I’m afraid that I suspect that it’s a bit delusional to think that you are the only person that could possibly know the exact best way to plan how to introduce box plots to your class, there’s also nothing stopping you still doing that. As long as you can explain your decisions that’s fine.

Similarly, there should be a digital text book that can be dragged and dropped to have the number and type of questions that you want to have for given topic. It’s daft that we have to go hunting either for worksheets that we more-or-less like, or end up making one ourselves.

A major thing that would really help with workload is having fewer lessons to teach and at least one guaranteed non-teaching period each day. Teaching is exhausting both mentally and physically and there are always things that come up during the day that need to be dealt with. Some of those non-teaching periods could easily be used as CPD slots where you got to actually discuss with other teachers how they go about delivering the (already planned) lessons.

I’ve never been a head of maths but I’ve never met one that has told me how much they’re enjoying the opportunity to lead their faculty in developing their maths teaching. It seems to me that HoF is a largely admin and complaints role so perhaps each faculty should have it’s own teaching and learning lead with a suitable reduction in timetable to actually focus on how lessons are being delivered.

Examinations and Exam Boards

There doesn’t need to be multiple exam boards. One would do. This would remove the worry of whether they’re actually fair and whether you’ve picked the right one.

I’m not actually too worried about the quantity of exams that students take in maths. I do wonder if the primary school ones could either be longer in time or have fewer questions as I don’t believe there should be much of a link between rapidly being able to do calculations.

Culture

Finally, and I know this is a majorly long-term plan, is to change the culture in wider society. I think there are two prongs to this with a common one from teachers being that it’s all too common to hear people announcing their lack of maths skills as a badge of honour. At pretty much every parents’ evening I’ll hear someone say, “I don’t know where they get it from, I was never any good at maths,” or something along those lines. This isn’t helpful and clearly gives the strong message that the maths you’re being taught in school isn’t important as *insert parent/guardian of choice* is managing just fine without it.

The leads me to the second prong. Too much of the maths that’s done in GCSE simply isn’t needed to be a successful adult. It simply can’t be necessary as we all accept that so many people will leave school having not mastered the material. I’m not advocating only teaching the truly practical elements of maths that will (most likely) be useful in later life as that would be uninspiring, perhaps the equivalent of English lessons primarily focussing on job applications and correctly filling in forms. I don’t know how we got to a position where the maths GCSE is so highly prized with English being it’s only equal. I regularly hear the very same parents that claimed they were, “never any good at maths,” then telling their child, “Maths is a really important one because you need it to be able to do pretty much anything.” Seems a bit contradictory to me!

Summary

This is my longest post ever and I still maintain that I don’t really consider myself to be an expert on this. I am well aware that are many practical and pragmatic issues with the things I’ve suggested and some of them (particularly the primary phase ones) may well be actually wrong.

If I could summarise it in three points, I think it’d be:

  • Reduce how much content we’re trying to teach people at each stage,
  • Give me more time to within my day to think about how I’m going to do it,
  • Make sure that the amount of money being paid doesn’t make other jobs seem significantly more attractive.

I will reply to comments but I’m busy planning/teaching so it might be a while…

From → Maths, Reflections

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