How would you change maths teaching if you could do anything at all

When I read an email from Lucy Dunford at the Maths Scholars scholarships office asking for contributions on no-holds barred changes to the teaching of maths, I replied without a second thought. Here was an opportunity I had to share whatever fantastical teaching ideas popped into my mind- Hogwarts style secret rooms and puzzles, school trips to the international space station, laser maze exit routines and inter-class robot battles- these made up a few of the more realistic proposals in my initial thirty second brainstorm.


What about mathematical breakfasts to start?

A few minutes after sending that reply, my second thoughts began to kick in. Yes I would be able to exercise the full extent of my imagination, but that would have to be delivered, not to my children, family or friends, but to professional mathematicians who collectively know far more about the international space station, lasers and robotics than I will ever know? Am I, or my mad little ideas, worthy of that audience?

It occurred to me that perhaps this is how some of my students feel when they come into my classes. I’ve definitely heard it from some of the adults I’ve worked and studied with, a reluctance to engage with certain problems, followed by a statement: “I’m not too good with maths,”.

Proof by Clementine: the surface area of a sphere is 4 pi r^2 (trace around widest part of clementine 4 times)
Proof by Clementine: the surface area of a sphere is 4 pi r^2 (trace around widest part of clementine 4 times)

I have developed a very strong opinion on this attitude when I run into it with other people, that it’s simply wrong, and I had to reiterate that to myself before I started retracting certain emails. When Dr Nira Chamberlain discussed the difference between a mathematician and a non-mathematician in December's issue, he didn’t pick out some category of knowledge, secret handshake or pass mark on a test as a defining characteristic of mathematicians, but simply tenacity when tackling a problem.

This is echoed when I read about “growth based mind sets”, or “resilience in the classroom”, it doesn’t matter if I’m leading a class on a trip to the moon, if I’m not teaching and inspiring children to keep striving for knowledge, to keep untangling problems no matter the struggle, then I’m not teaching mathematics.

I think the most fantastical change we can make is in how we, as a culture, view mathematics. Not as a grade on a paper in our teenage years, but as a set of tools for assessing, communicating, and tackling the problems we face throughout our lives.
If we get to involve cool robots, space and Harry Potter with that process, that’s just an added bonus.

Edward Hamilton

If you want to inspire try the new Winton Gallery at the Science Museum