Maths, Cambridge and Training in 2016 an interview with Steve Watson

The Maths Teacher Training Scholarship Scheme was delighted by the opportunity to interview Steve Watson at the end of January 2016. 

Steve Watson Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge

Steve is a Lecturer in Mathematics Education at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.  He is also a Fellow of Wolfson College.  Steve is also a former teacher and is currently on study leave. Therefore we pulled him out of the library to ask about his approach to teacher training and all points between.

However, before interviewing him about the whole notion of teacher training in Maths education I had a chance to pose a few general questions to him.

These questions were kindly supplied to me by members of our Twitter community. I thank Emma, Just Maths, Dave and Theresa for being sufficiently awake one morning to engage and suggest a few topics for Steve to do battle with.

Thanks to Emma Bell for this question:

Despite all changes to curricula and policy over the years, is there a "constant" within maths teaching?

SW: Yes, I think there is. Some of the traditional approaches to teaching maths tend to get retained. This is more so when changes are a constant and teachers are under pressure. They tend to feel safe adopting a fall-back position. That position is usually: Teacher explanation, students practice then assessment.

The real challenge in teaching pedagogy has been to introduce something different. Unfortunately policy has actually brought about more pressure than change. Although some has made teachers think more about learning and progress.

Just Maths asked: Can a non-maths teacher accurately assess the quality of a maths lesson & vice versa?

SW: There are some essential features of good quality teaching that all teachers would recognise. But at the same time there are specifics in maths teaching. For example, how students learn in maths is one thing. But to understand the way students are working on tasks, well that is something a specialist would only be able to see.

It is common to hear maths teachers say "nice idea but it wouldn't work in maths" what's your view on that? - Dave Gale

SW: I agree. It’s quite challenging to introduce new approaches in maths It is a challenging subject to teach and to introduce more ambitious things, represents an even bigger challenge and the amount of time taken up for teachers means it’s difficult to innovate or even introduce innovations. The constant is that new ideas are expected. Of course, this is without giving time for teachers to think about the how and the ways it’s going to work.

Dave Gale also asked: What is it about the teaching at Cambridge that makes it a top university? 

SW: What’s powerful is the partnership between schools and the university. We have the expertise of school-based practitioners and expertise of lectures that know about psychology, learning theory and maths pedagogy. This Cambridge system also has a long system of partnership, stretching back 100 years and works very effectively.

Theresa Young asked: Do you think government policy regarding re-sitting GCSE maths for 16-19 year olds is valid, especially as we have good framework of alternative qualifications in functional skills?

SW: No it’s not valid. There is some evidence to show that each time students re-sit GCSE maths they are less likely to get a c grade or higher. Alternatives are far more effective.
On other hand, I do understand the keenness for everyone to achieve a grade c in maths.

Theresa was also keen to ask Steve what his favourite equation might be. Here is the result:

SW: Euler’s equation is a remarkably clear result….  I love it because it’s a simple equation to express a complex idea. Richard Feynman called it "our jewel" and "the most remarkable formula in mathematics."  I agree with that!

Finally, we asked Steve: ‘What are we looking for in candidates that are thinking of teaching maths?’

SW: There are some givens. For example, subject knowledge underpins everything. However most maths-related degrees will cover this in sufficient detail.

For us the other things that’s essential is whether candidates have recent experience in a state school.  They need to have a realistic expectation of the kind of workplace in which they might operate.

They also need to demonstrate they are flexible in their approach to learning and just as importantly they are resilient. 

It is always exciting to see a candidate that has a presence or the capacity to develop one in the classroom. Of course what is also very important is that potential teachers have a genuine interest in the way kids learn mathematics.

I have seen considerable changes in the way teacher training has gone over the past 5-10 years. Now there is a greater expectation to fit more in. My ideal should be a much longer program. Think about how long a medical practitioner studies anatomy or physiology. We expect an hour studying psychology will suffice. It’s not acceptable for other professions, so why does it pass muster in teaching?

Aware that the library was calling, and with a wink we asked Steve: If you ruled the world what would you change about teaching maths in schools?

SW: I would immediately halve the amount of time people spend teaching. This would allow teachers more time for CPD and research. They would also have the opportunity to develop their own subject knowledge. In fact I would make teaching a masters or doctorate level profession.

The Maths Teacher Training Scholarship Scheme would like to thank Steve Watson for his generosity regarding his time.  This is the first part of a much longer interview about Maths Teacher Training Education. Check back and read our full interview.