With the volatility of this year’s GCSE mathematics results prominent in the news, the spotlight on numeracy will be shone brightly on many schools this coming academic term. The pressure will be on for colleagues in maths departments up and down the country who are determined to improve students’ understanding and application of the subject. Teaching maths in a secondary setting, I have always felt like the poor relation of my colleagues in the English department, who are given equal, if not more stature within the school. As for the English lessons themselves, they are naturally exciting and diverse. They allow students much more freedom and creativity in their learning, whereas dedicated mathematicians have to work frantically to inspire enthusiasm from our young scholars. We spend hours trying to make interesting resources for Pythagoras’ Theorem that will engage our students whilst imparting the necessary knowledge into their busy, young brains. And we do this in the meagre hope that they will be able to recall and apply said information in formal examinations and, more importantly, in their life after school. We are even guilty of harbouring a crazy notion that some students may actually enjoy our subject. Sadly, we hear all too often the vast numbers of students saying that maths is the worst subject on their timetable. So we as passionate teachers of this amazing natural art, have some difficult times ahead in our efforts to change their attitudes. And, how do those of you who have been tasked with what can be the poisoned chalice of numeracy across the curriculum go about addressing this fixed mindset on a global scale as well as improving the standard of mathematics throughout the school? Well, if I were to take up the mantle again, here are a few things I wish I’d have known:
1. Changing minds is as important as teaching the maths – your biggest challenge will be getting the buy-in. Children will treat maths like Marmite, they will love it or hate it. Their reasons for this will be one of three things; their own ability, the teaching they have experienced or the messages that they have heard from the people they listen to most. Your job is to give students confidence, create a culture of inspiring maths teaching (not just within the maths department) and to counteract any negative publicity that they may have experienced with lots of positive ideas and initiatives!
2. Accept that this is your crusade and only steely determination will give it momentum – teachers are among the most enthusiastic and supportive groups of people I have ever come across, but they are also the busiest. People will be happy to help, however it is you who will be the driving force by enabling them to do so. Little and often is the best diet to give colleagues. Also, make sure that you have regular conversations with an advocate from SLT; it’s much easier to move things forward if you keep them on side.
3. Start with staff – if you are going to encourage numeracy across the curriculum then you have to support staff with their own mathematics. Breakfast sessions on percentages etc. with coffee and croissants as an incentive are a great way to up-skill colleagues and encourage them to share ideas. Some teachers may not feel comfortable sharing their mathematical inadequacies with the group. Working with those staff on a one-to-one basis can pay bigger dividends in the long run. The conversations that you will have will give you a tremendous insight into their departments and help you to support the numeracy in their subjects; the dialogues will encourage empathy for one another and give you fantastic opportunities to build relationships. This is also something that your colleagues in the maths department can help you with. A clever way to make inroads into other subjects at this time of year is to offer to help with data analysis, you won’t find any non-mathematician declining assistance in such matters!
4. Produce ready-made resources to get departments started – once you’ve talked to teachers and found out the needs of their department, try to give them resources to make the job of delivering numeracy in context easier. A simple idea is to create a folder on the network with questions relevant to their subject. Exam banks are an invaluable tool for this since they have tonnes of in-context questions (particularly for science and technology). Once you’ve started the ball tolling with enthusiastic staff, there will be no stopping them. Encourage these trail-blazers to share ideas with other colleagues, this will give you more time to support the less confident departments. A handbook can be a really good resource but make sure it is useful. Explanations of correct approaches to common calculations can ensure consistency of teaching. Refer back to it regularly at every available opportunity to make sure that it’s not another document gathering dust in the back of stock cupboards across the school. You can reinforce the methods by offering to teach the mathematical aspect of a lesson, that way you can model the teaching whilst minimalising any confusion that students get when learning skills from non-specialists.
5. Work with other schools – in a culture where time is precious, collaboration is the single most difficult thing to do. If you are a secondary teacher then work with your feeder schools; primary colleagues, go and see what’s happening with your students once they start at the local high school. We’ve got a great deal to learn from each other so approach lessons with an open mind. The biggest hurdles for co-ordinators are finding the time to implement ideas and fitting in with the plethora of agendas that schools have to continually contend with. Looking at teaching in early years rather than focusing on year 6 can be an enlightening process and will subject the teacher being observed to less pressure than if you were going to watch an exam class. SLT support here is vital, they are the ones who have the strongest links with other schools and are the people who can free up your time to enable collaboration to take place. Think about the timing of your visits. Cover is at its minimum in late September/early October (and everyone is in better spirits) so you are much more likely to get a positive response to a request in the autumn term than in summer gain time when everyone is preparing for the next academic year and primary schools are busy with enrichment activities. You’re less likely to see formal maths lessons happening in June and July, although there will be some excellent contextual learning taking place at this time.
6. Use form time and assemblies to your advantage – have you ever known a form tutor or head of year decline an offer to kick start their students’ day? Getting into assemblies is a great way to market numeracy across the curriculum as well as raise your own profile within school. Proceed with caution though, only deliver an assembly if you feel confident to do so. If you’re not totally at ease with “numeracy jazz-hands” then enlist the help of more gregarious colleagues to sell the importance of mathematics on a grand scale. An infrequent numeracy newsletter can provide welcome relief for form tutors. Don’t enslave yourself by promising a weekly missal as you just won’t manage it. Instead, use your musings to reinvigorate enthusiasm when you sense interest is waning.
7. Publicity is everything – use every opportunity to advertise numeracy. Acquire as many display boards as you can. Bold and bright headlines on the school’s website can quickly draw attention as to what’s happening in the mathematical ether. This is where if you’re not creative or technical then you’ll need to be persuasive and have a cupboard filled with chocolate. In my experience, TAs are the most creative people on the staff and are always willing to help; enlisting them to be your Laurence Llewelyn Bowen around school will ensure that displays are vibrant, eye-catching and up-to-date. It is important that you do work collaboratively with your helpers and don’t leave them to their own devices. In doing so you will ensure that people feel valued and that any advertising clearly conveys the message you want to share in a professional and polished manner. Convince teachers who are popular with students and staff (if you’re not one of them) to spread the importance of being numerate, this may go some way in addressing the negative publicity our beloved subject often gets. Encourage those staff who don’t have anything good to say about mathematics to say nothing rather than reinforce negative attitudes.
8. Support parents and carers – a lack of mathematical confidence in a child’s home environment can result in a lack of support/encouragement of the effort they put into the subject at home. Offering information, help and guidance to parents and carers will enable them to take an interest in their child’s learning as well as building relationships and counteracting any bad educational experiences that they themselves may have had. Information evenings, offering adult numeracy classes and sharing guidance on how to teach certain skills are all easy ways to continue the mathematical conversation long after the students have left the building.
9. Take numeracy beyond maths lessons – every teacher gets frustrated that students can’t apply transferable skills across subjects and contexts, yet we never really address this issue effectively. Most students will not go on to devote their life to mathematics so it’s our job to show them the purpose in what we are teaching. We must enable children to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply this in situations where it will be useful to them. The best way to do this is contextual learning: showing them how they transfer what they’ve practised from a text book in real-life settings. How often do maths departments organise a trip? And yet there are lots of opportunities for the application of mathematics out there. Try to integrate the type of maths students would be expected to do as a plumber, doctor or artist into teaching about ratios rather than just doing more of the same. Get the maths department to use resources that students might see in other subjects to encourage their use of numeracy skills across disciplines.
10. Make maths fun – this can be hard at times because students (and some staff) see it as something that they have got to do and so must endure. This attitude will almost certainly switch off everyone involved and is not one to be encouraged. There are lots of competitions, organisations and software/apps that children of all ages and abilities can get involved in, they just need someone to lead the way and give them opportunities to do so. Maths/puzzle clubs can give some of the most vulnerable students a safe place to go whilst supporting their numeracy skills so are a great way of delivering intervention. Again, enlist the help of teachers, TAs and other students to make the magic happen. For all your hard work banging the numeracy drum around school, nothing can compete with the experience that students have in their maths lessons so it is imperative that you develop a collective ethos within the team itself and work closely with the head of department (if it’s not you). Half the battle is getting children hooked and this happens in the classroom. If you can create a vibrant and exciting environment where every child feels that with some effort along the way, they can achieve in the subject then everyone is a winner.
Again, this is another I wish I’d have known that blog. Please be assured that I am not professing to have the secret to numeracy across the curriculum, in fact quite the opposite. The purpose of this article is merely to prevent those of you carrying the torch from making some of the mistakes that I did. I have produced some resources along the way that may act as useful starting points. I’m happy to share these so please feel free to get in touch. There are lots of great ideas out there so don’t be afraid to use the internet to network and collaborate with others in a similar position. If you’re lucky enough to be in a school where numeracy is already well-established, don’t reinvent the wheel. As Chris Evans says, “Agree and add to.” If you can, learn from the people who have implemented the existing practice and ask for their advice; this will save time and prevent you treading on too many toes/egos. Time is key, you’ll never have enough of it, and it will be a while before you see the fruits of your labour but this is when personal motivation is paramount. Good luck on this exciting new venture in your teaching career and keep going even when you have those difficult days when you feel disheartened, because the work you are doing now will have an impact on the students long after you’re there to see it.