BMCE9 – My Introduction to the Mathematics Education Community with Dr Nicholas Peatfield

I was recently lucky enough to spend four days at the British Congress of Mathematics Education at Warwick University, partially supported by a £300 bursary from the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications. 

 The days were full and very stimulating, with a slightly bewildering array of talks. These covered a vast range of topics related to mathematics education, with contributions from everyone from classroom teachers investigating various aspects of their practice, to academics studying cognitive and affective aspects mathematics teaching and learning, to publishers researching the impact of their curriculum support materials. Plenary speakers included mathematicians such as Professor David Speigelhalter talking about data literacy and fake news, Dr Vicky Neale talking about the prime pairs conjecture, and a fascinating after-dinner talk from Dr Hannah Fry on the mathematics of human behaviour. 

There were also contributions from government agencies and examination boards reporting on the bedding in of the tumultuous changes that have impacted mathematics teaching in schools in England since the new 2014 National Curriculum was unveiled. This new curriculum was followed by the rolling out of new GCSE and A-levels, which attempt to test more thoroughly the three curriculum aims of “Fluency, Problem Solving, and Reasoning” in mathematics. Along with the results of the international TIMSS and PISA Mathematics assessments in 2015, the subsequent introduction of the Far Eastern concept of “Teaching for Mastery” in primary and secondary schools across England, as well as the introduction of the new Core Maths A-level, suitable for anyone with a pass at GCSE level and intended to increase participation and use of mathematical techniques in 16-18 year olds, it has been a busy four years in mathematics education!  

 Highlights of the conference for me included Professor Paul Ernest’s plenary on the importance of mistakes in mathematics progress, linking the shame associated to mathematics failure, and the subsequent avoidance of mistakes, to a struggle between “Good and Evil”. I also very much enjoyed a lively debate in the session given by NCETM director Charlie Stripp around how well the new curriculum is meeting its stated aims, and how well the examinations are testing this. For my own future research, I was very interested in the concept of Perezhivanie, meaning the emotional and cognitive baggage that we take from one experience to shape our future experiences. This was introduced to me at the very popular session on Encouraging Mathematical Resilience, run by Dr Sue Johnston-Wilder and Dr Clare Lee. As I wrote my Master’s dissertation on Affective Aspects of Mathematical Resilience this really chimed with me and I found myself making connections to the reading in cognitive science that I have been doing more recently.

I gave a session at the conference covering my work so far researching connections between the promotion of mathematical thinking in schools, the interpreted curriculum, and various policy initiatives and other commentators attempts to instigate curriculum change over several decades, and high stakes national testing. Mathematics performance in the UK has long been a source of concern for policymakers, business leaders, and educationalists alike, especially in the light of international comparison tests. There have been many initiatives to remedy this, certainly as far back as the Cockcroft Report in 1982. I addressed the question of why such a prolonged effort has thus far not had the positive impact expected, and whether the pressure on schools to produce students who perform in standardised tests might bear some of the blame for this. I reported on initial findings based on an online survey answered by 49 teachers of mathematics, which attempted to measure teacher beliefs about and attitudes to mathematics, teaching and professional development and how these impact on the activities that they offer to their learners. I concluded that teachers feel that the pressure to get their students to perform in standardised tests does adversely affect their ability to offer them the opportunities to develop their mathematical thinking. My audience was able to give me some good feedback on my presentation, as well as pointers towards other research groups with interests in the attitudes of teachers and students toward mathematics.

More importantly for me, though, was the opportunity to make many new connections, both in my ideas about mathematics education, and across the community of those involved in mathematics education, in the UK and internationally. I hope both of these will lead to rich veins of research for me in the future, and improvements in the mathematical experiences of students worldwide.

Dr Nicholas Peatfield, Bath Spa University, April 2018