Maths Scholars, A Level text books and Maths Associations

Dr. Tom Bennison talks all things maths

The Maths Scholars Twitter

The Maths Scholars scheme was keen to interview Tom as we have been in contact through our very active Twitter community. ‘I love Twitter, ‘ says Tom ‘it’s such an amazing space for CPD. I have learned so much on that social media platform and it’s such a brilliant place for NQTs to learn, find reassurance and watch just what’s happening within the Maths community.’

We totally agree and were looking forward to catching up with him this week.

We asked Tom what drew him to teaching as a career.



“I guess when I was doing my undergraduate course I didn’t really consider teaching as option. Like many others I thought the route was going to be Programming or accountancy.  I don’t think I really understood what teaching was really about. My thoughts about the profession didn’t really align with the reality.”

Overcoming challenges is such a rewarding part of my maths career

“I was so lucky not to have struggled at school so the kinds of challenges and difficulties teachers can face were not part of my world picture. Maths is usually taught in sets and I never saw how imaginative and rewarding it was to see those ‘light bulb’ moments teachers have when dealing with students who might well struggle with some aspects. This was alien to me. But now it’s a really rewarding aspect of my career, for sure.”

I suddenly realised how much I enjoyed teaching maths

“However, when I started my PhD studies and worked alongside Paul Houston at Nottingham University I began to teach undergraduates and often lectured to different groups. It’s at this point that I realise just how much I enjoyed it. In fact I enjoyed it more than working on my PhD! Therefore I embarked on a School Direct teacher training course with the University of Notts. and landed a job in the school where I had trained. Perfect!”

Teaching is a fulfilling and rewarding profession

“Personally I think it’s a really fulfilling profession and it’s greatly misunderstood. It sometimes attracts those that are not quite sure what they want to do after graduation. People have been known to get the most funding possible to complete teacher training, and then drop out very quickly. The number of people that drop out from teaching within 5 years is quite shocking. 4 in 10 teachers quit within a year!

To be honest I think the Maths Scholars scheme is extremely useful 

“Scholars receive professional development expertise and access to some incredible CPD. I could kick myself that I didn’t apply at the time. The Scholars scheme offers prestige and membership of some pretty amazing maths institutions. I just wish I had known about it at the time. Mind you I was pretty busy writing up my thesis in my first year. I would encourage anyone thinking abut becoming a Scholar to apply.”

‘I’m no good at maths!” What is that about then?

Maths Scholars scheme is extremely useful

“I suppose one of the frustrating aspects is how people in the UK still keep thinking it’s ok to say ‘I was never any good at maths.’ Even teachers commiserate with students and say they struggled too. I find it so weird. Would you be happy to admit to poor reading skills in the teaching profession? No, of course not!’  We really need a working party that will promote the true nature of math and promote the love and joy of maths at every single level. After all it’s integral within the current world in which we live, work and thrive. It’s my mission to help change this outlook.”

In fact it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say we need polymaths! 

“After all the thinking and problem solving and logical approaches; hypotheses testing, alongside finding patterns is essential in almost everything we do. I want to disabuse GCSE students of the notion that arithmetic is maths. There is a big distinction. We promote STEM subjects but actually we need well-rounded students and employees because everything feeds into the everyday, including maths.”

I’m not weird!

“My students find it weird when I show an interest in an English essay they’ve written for example. It amazes me when scientists in school don’t realise plotting lines of best fit in science is mathematical. They just don’t connect across the curriculum. Mathematics should be a tool across the curriculum; logical thinking skills impact on learning a language or writing an essay. These are perhaps, not emphasised enough.”

Tom is actually A level KS5 coordinator at Kirk Hallam Community Academy in Ilkeston, Derbyshire. He is also Level 3 lead for East Midlands West Maths Hub. 

I love teaching KS5 and this is where I can really use my expertise

“I am actually excited by the new A level in Maths that will happen in 2017. It is a real opportunity for developing real mathematicians. It will make students and teacher look harder. Universities will like it as it’s 100% tested and it will give students more of an understanding of what is expected when studying university level maths.”

Make the leap between A level and University Maths much easier!

“However. I do sense an element of fear amongst some staff and some have talked about how they worry that it might be difficult to deliver the government’s intended outcomes. But there will be masses of CPD for teachers and this is exciting. Looking at the interconnections between the different strands of maths will be amazing. But we do need very strong and confident maths teachers to teach this new exam. What a wonderful opportunity!  We can make the leap between A-level and undergraduate study so much easier. There will certainly be more emphasis on proof. Right now that has only been covered in Further Maths. On the new spec there is explicit mention of proving the irrationality of square root of 2 and the infinite number of primes.”

This is not how maths should be portrayed

“This is explicit and has not been in standard A level before and not even in Further Maths. Therefore these ideas are trickling further down and we may see an end to mindless mechanical manipulations. In my mind it is not how maths should be portrayed. What’s the point of not having a link between module learning rules only. Why do students have to be so teacher dependent? So now, it appears, regardless of teaching, students will have the experience of classic proofs that are quite beautiful.”

Mind you, there is one negative; I would like to seen more numerical methods in this new A level.

"A lot of students don’t seem to like this for me the focus is wrong. We need to consider approximations as solutions and the importance of convergence with regards to ‘failure’ of numerical algorithms.” After all the vast majority of mathematical models that we solve in real life cannot be solved exactly - numerical methods are essential for the modern world. 

Sometimes traditional is best

“But for me, it’s the state of maths text-books that is worrying, generally. I prefer using old-fashioned textbooks as opposed to the modern ones. I still love Bostock and Chandler, The Core Course for A level. Why? One reason is the latest focus on Singapore texts books that got ideas from SMP. It is interesting that we have now gone away from that. I think that may be the fault of exam and assessment criteria as people are often guilty of teaching to tests. Really, we need new textbooks produced. This is a great opportunity. I’d like to see texts at A level that are not targeting specific exam boards for one course. If we do that it makes it more likely that teachers will teach to that style of assessment rather than teaching maths per se. I would rather have an A level book that’s just an A level book.”

The whole teaching profession needs to make continuous improvement in supporting environments

“We all need to feel we can ask No one knows everything and we can learn so much from each other. This is about having a growth mindset. Targeted CPD is vital so is not being worried about asking in fear of others being judgemental. That traditional culture needs to change and we must all fight against it. I really believe schoolteachers should always keep developing. Like I say this growth mindset means there is always more to learn. Just because you’ve been teaching for 10 years you don’t necessarily have all the answers; we can learn from almost anyone. Building that culture into the school is key.  Fostering an ‘anyone can walk in, open door’ culture will go a long way. It’s funny that we don’t observe that often. Putting up artificial barriers to stop that is damaging. But we do see it often as threatening or judgemental and it’s difficult to overcome but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In the long term it should become an unremarkable and unremarked aspect of our day.”

Finally we asked Tom about his interest in subject associations

“I feel subject associations are really useful. I started off as a member of the IMA and have ended up as Vice Chair of the East Midlands IMA. They are not just about research. Some of our tasks are designed for teachers in the East Midlands. We really want to promote membership to Year 12 and 13s also as they have much to benefit from IMA membership. Subject associations also give us the opportunity for escaping from the day-to-day issues that can bog us down and eat into our time. We provide a bit of an out for that and give teachers the opportunity to talk both maths and pedagogy and also keep a positive outlook, especially important when you have a bad day. It’s also good to know that it’s not just me, or my department in isolation; there’s a whole community out there.”

“There is a problem that schools often won’t pay for membership, as there are three main subject associations in Maths. This is a shame; the government decision not to invest in CPD may be considered short sighted. Considering high performing jurisdictions we have to ask if the amount of CPD we need every day is proportionately lower in UK? Just asking.”

“That aside, as I said earlier we can learn so much from Twitter. If you don’t already engage with #mathsTLP, #mathschat, #mathscpdchat and my own #mathsjournalclub on Twitter for a start.  But do be mindful, assess everything and use personal reflection as evidence.”

If you are thinking of becoming a Maths Scholar then it’s not too late to apply for September 2016. As Dr. Bennison says, it’s very worthwhile having access to publications, support, community, CPD and funding. We would like to see more people applying. So what are you waiting for? Apply to be a Maths scholar today by beginning here.