Use Of Context In The Maths Classroom - By Tony Parkes

Tony Parkes"Which maths are you going to do next, A level or Core Maths?"  This is the question we should be asking our GCSE pupils as they plan their next educational move, says Catherine van Saarloos, rather than: "Are you going to do A level maths?" 

Our role as maths teachers is to not only teach maths but to bring it to life and make it relevant so that our pupils would never consider not continuing maths as an option.  Catherine goes on to say: "Disenchanted GCSE re-takers are now my favourite challenge in teaching."  This is fueled by the desire that students should take maths because they want to rather than out of a sense of obligation.  

Core Maths provides an important pathway for pupils who have wide interests and prefer not to commit one of their A level options to mathematics, as it is taken alongside their A levels.  It leaves behind the traditional maths syllabus in favour of the applied mathematics used widely in industry and business.  Importantly, Core Maths is welcomed by universities offering courses in Psychology, Geography, etc. as they need their new students to be beyond GCSE level in their mathematical literacy.

During this workshop we looked at a number of typical Core Maths lessons.  In the first a graph was presented comparing the current status of coronavirus (we are in the midst of the outbreak as I type) with other outbreaks such as SARS, bird flu, measles, chickenpox and the common cold.  What did this graph tell us? Well, it spoke to us all in different ways: Why is coronavirus displayed as a pink rectangular shape and all the others by a dot? How do they know that a person with coronavirus, on average, passes it onto 1.5 other people? Why is the y-axis a logarithmic scale?  The point is that there is not one answer but that it stimulates mathematical engagement and discussion.  The graph was published in a newspaper and we were invited to imagine a suitable attention grabbing headline.

‘Estimating’ was the next focus - using knowledge to examine facts, make assumptions and intelligent predictions, infer probabilities and calculate risk.  Again, no right or wrong answers, but typical in the world of work.  It reminded me of a memorable and unusual cover lesson in my youth when we were asked to calculate: “How many grasshoppers would it take to power our town?”

Making maths relevant to real-life should always be high on the list of objectives when teaching, not only because it promotes engagement, but because it carries with it a bonus.  This bonus, I discovered during the first half of my teacher training, is that an engaged class is a well-behaved class.

By Tony Parkes



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