How Has Maths Teaching Changed Since I Was A Pupil?

David Anderson It’s been a while since I was last at school. I finished my A-levels at the end of the 1980s and headed off to university at the start of the last decade of the 20th Century. Mine was the first year to take GCSEs instead of O-levels and CSEs, and while neither of us knew it, my maths teacher was busy inspiring me to one day head down the same route he had followed.

Chalk. I remember lots of chalk. Chalk and blackboards and blackboard rubbers. In maths you had giant-sized equipment to make diagrams and constructions on the blackboard. A metre-long ruler with a handle to make it easier to hold against the board, a protractor the size of the Tyne Bridge and the largest set of compasses you’d ever seen with a stick of chalk at one end. I’m not saying that my decision to become a teacher was driven by a desire to use a giant set of compasses, but I am secretly quite disappointed that they’re not in use any more.

Technology makes all of that drawing and graphing simpler now. I can whip up a construction or a graph on an interactive board in seconds (well, maybe minutes as I’m just starting to get to grips with using one), and I can demonstrate the effect of changing co-efficients in a quadratic ‘live’ to the class. Tools such as Geogebra and Desmos allow maths teachers to animate the changes in equations on a graph and I watched my mentor demonstrate tessellation with a graphic where moving one point in the shape changed all the other shapes. None of this was available 30 years ago, and it’s such a powerful way to explain concepts to pupils. When I was at school, we had a room with eight BBC Micro computers, and that was the Computing Science Department. There was no internet, no e-mail, not even mobile phones and so there wasn’t the opportunity to search the many excellent websites for resources and research to inform teaching practice. Now you can take a class to an IT room and have them all take part in engaging online activities where they work with each other across the room.

Away from the leap in technology, the concept of differentiation is the thing that I think is most different. When I was at school everyone had the same lesson, the same textbook and answered the same questions. I remember struggling in Further Maths – there were two of us in the class and I was not as quick as my friend and so I was perpetually last at finishing questions and eventually dropped the subject. When I’m planning a lesson in 2018, I’m thinking about the people in my class – who will struggle and need more assistance, who is very able and might need extension work to push them on? How do I pitch the lesson to keep the class with me, where might they get confused and how am I going to deal with that? It feels like there is much more focus on planning for the pupils in your class, and how to help them realise their potential, and that can only be a good thing.

By David Anderson.