‘Cool Maths’: The sum of all fears

Schoolchildren will never learn to love abstract subjects like maths if teachers are afraid to challenge them.

Michele Ledda

Topics Politics

‘Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books. But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.’ William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

One of the central themes in modern education debates is how to motivate pupils. How do we make learning maths, science, history or English an interesting, enjoyable, and rewarding experience for pupils? It is widely believed that if we fail to convince pupils that studying a particular subject is both relevant to their personal experience and enjoyable they will never learn it properly.

This point was emphasised by Charles Clarke three years and two education secretaries ago: ‘Enjoyment is the birthright of every child… Children learn better when they are excited and engaged … When there is joy in what they are doing, they learn to love learning.’ (1)

One of the subjects that most worries educationalists and policy makers is mathematics. Being the most abstract subject in the curriculum, maths is almost universally considered a hard subject, which is difficult to make relevant to pupils’ lives. Minister for Higher Education Bill Rammell notes that ‘mathematics is too often seen as difficult or boring’ and ‘we have a curriculum that all too often fails to excite and motivate learners’. (2)

Educationalist Adrian Smith, author in 2004 of a major inquiry into the state of post-14 mathematics, Making Mathematics Count, states in his report that there has long ‘been considerable concern about many young people’s perception of mathematics as being “boring and irrelevant” and “too difficult”, compared with other subjects’. (3)

For the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), maths is worse than boring. It must be truly terrifying, as ‘the best teachers’ build confidence by ‘enabling [students] to talk through misconceptions in a non-threatening way’. Ofsted cites as an example of a good lesson one where ‘the teacher valued and used all answers from students, whether correct or not’. As a result, the students were ‘highly motivated’. (4)

Ofsted wants to see lessons with pace, like stand-up comedy, in order to ensure the full attention of the audience. Yet in 2005 it criticised maths teachers for not slowing down the pace of the lesson when necessary: ‘In many of the less effective lessons, the teaching moves on before pupils have understood the concept; the pressure to cover new content as quickly as possible results in shallow coverage and lack of depth in learning.’ (5)

Ofsted also implies that there must be a trade off between serious learning and entertainment: ‘A stimulating session with hairdressing students struck just the right balance between engaging the learners and keeping their mathematics moving forward.’ But why should we strike a balance between engaging the learners and learning maths? It seems that we can only sell learning in an underhand way, as something else.

In June 2006, various newspapers reported as ‘cool maths’ a £4m initiative by the secretary of state for education Alan Johnson aimed at ‘giving teachers new and innovative ways to engage with pupils at Key Stage 3′ (6).

Johnson explained that the programme ‘will make learning engaging and fascinating [as] the problems will be based around things which appeal to pupils, such as fashion, football, or the Olympics’. But Johnson gave away his real views on serious learning when he stated that ‘the questions will be open, so that the answers will be found through discussion, activity and ingenuity, rather than sitting in a dark room with a wet towel around the head’. Like a self-conscious teenager, Mr Johnson seems so desperate to look cool that he doesn’t hesitate to declare his disgust for swots.

However, the prize for coolest educators must go to the chemistry lecturers at Leicester University, who dressed up as Harry Potter characters to motivate primary school children to study their academic discipline. According to the BBC, ‘Dr Jonny Woodward is putting on a “Gryffindor gown” to become Harry while Dr Paul Jenkins dresses up as the headmaster, Professor Albus Dumbledore, and Mrs Tracy McGhie is transfigured into Professor Minerva McGonagall’ (7).

We should be more honest and tell children what they already know: that maths has very little to do with fashion, football and the Olympics; that chemistry has nothing to do with Harry Potter. Middle-aged educators who try to jump on to every fashionable bandwagon like a bunch of groupies don’t even look cool, never mind motivate pupils to study.

The real problem, then, is not that modern pupils are in any way different from previous generations. The problem is the era these children have been born into. Adults no longer believe that education is a worthwhile thing in its own right. It must always be made ‘relevant’. They have so little faith in pupils that they believe that children are now incapable of grasping abstract concepts, never mind developing a love of books.

Learning necessarily involves hard work and individual effort. Teachers are unlikely to convince children that learning a school subject is worth the effort if we believe so little in our discipline and in our pupils’ intelligence.

Michele Ledda is an English teacher in the north of England.

(1) Excellence and enjoyment: A strategy for primary schools, Dfes, May 2003

(2) Bill Rammel MP, Improving Learning In Mathematics: Challenges And Strategies, 6 October 2005

(3) Making Mathematics Count, The report of Professor Adrian Smith’s Inquiry into Post-14 Mathematics Education, February 2004.

(4) Evaluating mathematics provision for 14–19-year-olds, Ofsted, HMI 2611, May 2006.

(5) Ofsted subject reports 2003/04, Mathematics in secondary schools, HMI 2326, February 2005

(6) Today’s complex world doesn’t add up without essential maths skills, speech by the Rt Hon Alan Johnson MP, Secretary of State for Education and Skills Launch of the National Centre for Excellence in the teaching of Mathematics, 27 June 2006

(7) ‘Real-life’ lessons used in maths, BBC news, 27 June 2006

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Topics Politics


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