1. Maths is a language
In a keynote titled ‘Teaching the Shakespeare of Mathematics’, noted Oxford professor and mathematics populariser Marcus du Sautoy revealed how it was his discovery that maths was a language that initially inspired his love for the subject. “What do we do with language?” he asked. “We tell stories.” From there, he proceeded to show how coordinate geometry can enable students to describe geometrical shapes that can’t be seen, and how the magic of prime numbers helped the likes of Olivier Messiaen produce musical works of art. By contrast, du Sautoy noted, the teaching of maths is broadly utilitarian. That’s useful, but we don’t teach utilitarian English. Instead, we inspire children with the big, complex stories of Shakespeare and others. Why shouldn’t maths teachers share some remarkable stories of their own?
2. Dyscalculia exerts a long-term negative impact
The focus of a presentation given by Brian Butterworth of UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience was a group for whom maths very much was a problem – people with dyscalculia. Butterworth highlighted how the condition – a congenital neurological disorder affecting 4% to 7% of children that causes them to struggle with foundational arithmetic – can reduce the probability of a child achieving five or more A* to C GCSE grades by 7 to 20 percentage points, and reduce lifetime earnings by as much as £114,000. For developmental dyslexia, which affects 4% to 8% of children, the figures are 3 to 12 percentage points and £81,000 respectively.
3. Singapore’s criteria for maths success is different to that of its international admirers
According MNP technical consultant and international speaker on Singapore Maths teaching, Dr Yeap Ban Har, the island city-state is well aware of how impressed other countries are by its consistently high PISA scores, but less impressed by those scores itself. To hear Ban Har tell it, Singapore’s maths practitioners are ‘obsessed’ with helping the lowest performing 10% of their school starters, and determined to narrow the gap between them and their high performing peers. To that end, big changes are apparently on the way in Singapore with the imminent arrival of a new maths curriculum focused on giving pupils more opportunities for deep learning and imparting big mathematical ideas.
4. Maths education should be less about the destination and more about the journey
Maths education consultant Adam Gifford drew comparisons between how the subject was taught circa 2006, around the time he moved to the UK from New Zealand, and the prevailing trends of today. Back then, he told the audience, it was believed the answer to improving pupils’ maths ability lay in success criteria; now, there’s recognition of the need to engage pupils’ ‘left brains’. The challenge is for teachers to get pupils curious in the journey towards outcomes, rather than just the outcomes themselves. And just as children need to interrogate the process by which they come to a solution, educators need to ensure they’re not racing towards outcomes without being curious or innovating along the way.
5. Devise an ethos, not a poster
That was advice of Philip McNaboe, assistant headteacher at Orrell Lamberhead Green Academy in Wigan, when discussing ‘How to Encourage Deep Mathematical Thinking in ALL pupils’. Having adopted the MNP programme in 2015, the school’s approach to doing that began with changing the mindset of teachers to recognise that children with less mathematical knowledge can still accelerate, given sufficiently high level teaching and support, and to acknowledge that the messages children receive concerning their potential can hamper their learning. Teachers were also encouraged to celebrate conceptual mistakes made by children in the classroom in order to create a positive atmosphere, and to see that getting children to explain their work – even when their answers are correct – is of key importance.
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