“We must get away from seeing maths as a ‘Marmite’ subject”

2 July 2018

Author: Vicci Williamson, Director of Research & Development at Hungerhill School

Having a classroom full of independent and motivated young mathematicians is no easy feat. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try everything in our power to achieve it. With the right level of input and enthusiasm, we as teachers have the ability to encourage and inspire the vast majority of the students we come across.

I will start off by looking at independence. It is important that students are able to work independently at a young age, otherwise we are setting them up to fail when they leave school and the support network we provide disappears. There is a strong link here to metacognition; the ability of pupils to independently plan, monitor and assess their own thinking and learning. A summary of the evidence behind metacognition and pupil progress can be found in the EEF Toolkit online, and there is also a related blog on our website by Alex Quigley. My year 7 class has recently studied fractions. We were onto the addition and subtraction of mixed numbers. By the end of it, individual students were able to use different methods depending on the question; whether it be converting them to improper fractions, or grouping the integers and grouping the fractions. They each had their own reasons for their choice of method and could articulate their reasons in writing, to each other and to me.

It would be easy for me to pretend that the lesson leading up to that one was plain sailing, but it wasn’t. The students had already demonstrated a good understanding of fractions, so I decided to just give them a couple of questions before discussing them, and I encouraged them to try to answer them using as many different methods as possible. This came with varying degrees of success, but I believe it is important to encourage classes to give things a go, and not always rely on the teacher. However, I felt that the discussion which took place didn’t demonstrate a deep understanding. As a result, I carefully devised two questions to model at the start of the next lesson. I worked through the questions myself, using two different methods for each question. I shared with the class my thought process throughout the modelling, and how I checked my answers. We then discussed which method was the most efficient in each case and why. When I then set them off on a similar task again, they were in a much stronger position to select the most efficient method for them and explain their choice. Perhaps a nice follow-up homework exercise here would have been for them to explain to parents or carers why they chose different methods for different questions.

Motivation is key to success in all aspects of life. As painful as it is to say, it is something which some people lack when it comes to maths. There is a belief out there that you are either good at maths or you’re not, and you can’t change which category you fall into. If we as teachers don’t make a real effort to stop young people thinking like this, then unfortunately this image isn’t going to change. Giving all students the chance to experience success in maths is key to developing their motivation for the subject, as well as flooding them with praise for even the ‘basic’ tasks. We need to acknowledge that we have a huge impact on the climate of our classrooms, through the tasks and resources we use, rewards we put in place and relationships we build.

It is important that there is a strong positive message outside of our classroom too. Please do challenge comments that are detrimental to maths. It isn’t culturally acceptable to say that we are bad at English, so why does it seem to be acceptable to say that we are bad at maths?

Posted on 2 July 2018
Posted in: Blog

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