Can I Really Make A Difference?

Naomi PendletonI had a bit of a wobble this week. To be fair, a family member is really sick with Coronavirus so I’m a bit emotional and sleep deprived. But I started questioning my choice to be a maths teacher, which isn’t ideal, only six weeks into the course!

It started because I discovered that at my local high school only 16% of students in year 11 left with a GCSE grade 5 or above in English and maths in 2018/19. It led me down a rabbit hole of upsetting statistics about the mental health of teenagers, the prevalence of maths anxiety, and the massive challenges faced by already disadvantaged students in deprived areas.

As it happens, the reason I started the research was for an assignment for my course on best teaching practices, so I had a cup of tea, put the awful statistics on the back burner, and resumed my research into how to teach maths. This, too, led me down a rabbit hole – but this time a wonderful one of possibilities, potential and hope.

So I thought I’d share what I’ve learned with you, because everyone needs a bit of hope.

Firstly, the idea that some people are born with mathematical brains and some aren’t is a big fat lie. Well, to be fair, maybe just an honest misconception, rather than an intentional deception. But it’s a pervasive one. I believed it until I read otherwise, because my Mum believed it and taught it to me. I suspect my high school maths teacher believed it too. But it’s not true. Making mistakes creates new links in your brain which basically makes you smarter. For a better explanation look up Jo Boaler or Carol Dweck, who are my new idols.

The upshot of this is that trying to understand why maths works rather than just memorising algorithms is a really smart choice, though perhaps one that students will be reluctant to embrace. But that’s okay too, because with the right techniques, I can teach students how to think mathematically, and to embrace what Dweck calls a “growth mindset.”

This might all be quite obvious to you, but if not, here’s what I’m going to put in my assignment.

Praise engagement rather than attainment. Making conjectures, especially wrong ones, can be a great discussion point.
Asking why an answer is right or wrong takes learning deeper.
Collaboration is fine. In fact, it’s usually really beneficial for both mathematical learning and developing teamwork skills. Bonus!
Give enough time for students to work out the process themselves. If you hand them the answers you rob them of rich learning opportunities.
Most importantly, be adaptable and willing to learn from your own mistakes – after all that’s what you’re trying to teach the students to do!

By Naomi Pendleton