'Communicating Mathematics' with Lynda White
Lynda White has been a long –time supporter and assessor on the scheme. She is also a lecturer in Mathematics at Imperial College and is responsible for setting up the "Communicating Mathematics" module. We caught up with her to learn more about the importance of this topic.
Why did you think it was important to have a course specifically on communicating mathematics?
I’ve always felt that it that it is important to encourage students to explain their own mathematical thoughts effectively, both in writing and orally. About 10 years ago, a colleague, Professor Emma McCoy, suggested that she and I set up a course option entitled "Communicating Mathematics", which I thought was a brilliant idea.
It was important to us that this would count for degree purposes in exactly the same way as any other course option and that it would be an attempt to address the lack of good Mathematics students going into teaching. Numbers on the course inevitably vary from year to year, but the feedback is always enthusiastic and very complimentary.
Increasing the number of maths students becoming teachers is something the scholarship scheme cares about too. Can you tell us a little bit more about the communicating maths module?
The structure of the course is simple. Each student spends 10 half days at a local school between January to March as a teaching assistant and is mentored by a Mathematics teacher. During this time in school the students complete a project and whilst the topic is up to the individual, examples of recent projects are:
• Developing teaching materials which the school can use in the future
• Writing a revision guide on specific mathematical topics
• Running a Maths Club or revision classes
During the school placement, the students also have to attend three tutorials which cover their initial experiences of teaching, support their project work and the overall assessment of their work. As this module is really hard work, we always make sure that we provide the students with a tasty lunch (including cakes of course!) at each tutorial.
What types of schools do the students work at?
We have good contacts with a number of schools from inner city comprehensives to well- known public schools. Each has its own challenges. Some students return to their own schools and discover what happens on the other side of the staff room door. On a typical school placement, students attend two or more different lessons during the morning or afternoon. At the start of the placements, the students will help pupils with work set by the teacher and over time build to whole class teaching. Nothing really prepares you for starting teaching and for many of the students, the realisation of what it is like to control a class of pupils and some people’s attitude towards learning Mathematics is quite an eye-opener!
This sounds a fantastic opportunity to learn more about teaching, how do people become involved in the module?
Firstly, you have to be lively, well-motivated and reliable. If you apply to join the module, we invite you to interview and assess your basic teaching skills, for example can you explain an elementary mathematical topic in a way which is accessible to many different people?
Once on the module, do you support the students?
Absolutely! In the Autumn term we have training to help prepare the students for the classroom including developing their presentation skills, legal considerations and critically school logistics - don't use anyone else's coffee cup in the staff room! Although Emma and I run these sessions, wherever possible we invite current teachers along to talk to our students and given them tips on how to cope in the classroom.
Students also have the opportunity to teach a mathematical topic to a small group of their peers. This last activity is probably the most valuable in their training session. Can you explain why we invert a fraction and multiply when dividing a number by the fraction?
So what do your students gain from learning how to communicate mathematics?
Most importantly, our students find the experience very rewarding and hugely enjoyable – we often hear that this course “was the best thing I did in my degree". They grow in confidence during the course and acquire many of the soft skills demanded by employers whatever career paths they choose. Of course the students also get to see the reality of teaching – from the highs to the inevitable lows. Many students undertaking this course go on to teach as a career. Personally, Emma and I get enormous satisfaction from running the course.
It certainly sounds an amazing opportunity to gain teaching experience and learn how to communicate maths clearly. Thanks for talking to us, Lynda.