Perhaps my least catchy title yet. There’s a lot of talk on twitter at the moment around subject specialism in maths. Moreover, a lack of ‘specialists’, maths degrees, in-depth subject knowledge, prevalence of maths tricks and so on. Well, I’ve spent most of the day going round in circles debating those things, but I want to focus here on something that is in the control of every teacher in every school:
I feel like we’ve really lost our way in the teaching profession on this front. Students finish school, they go to University, they train to become teachers, they qualify, and then what? Well, in my experience, they teach the same curriculum for 45 years or so, then call it a day. Or, if you’re REALLY cynical, do it for a few years and then find it’s too hard because no-one gave them any coping strategies or support.
Either way, neither of those scenarios really helped build the skills of the teacher. And where does that part fit in? What does it even look like? Who is helping teachers get better? I’m not talking about general pedagogy. Lord knows you get enough training on generic pedagogical strategies every single training day for the rest of your career. But what about subject knowledge? What about maths-specific pedagogy. Have you ever been asked ‘how do you teach volume?’ ‘what works?’ ‘have you tried it this way?’. If you’re reading this, then the chances are you have, because you’re online, you’ve probably linked to this via twitter, and you’re talking about pedagogy all damn day. But what about the rest of us?
Just how good IS your subject knowledge? Is it complete? Can it ever be?
Do you know where Sin, Cos and Tan actually come from?
Do you know why the area of a triangle is 1/2abSinC? Or do you just know it works?
I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t know. When were you supposed to find out? Was it when you learnt it at school? Because we know that didn’t happen. And still isn’t happening in a lot of classes (don’t get me started, I’m exhausted).
Do you even know what you don’t know?
Is anyone challenging anyone over this? Or helping them? I fear not.
New mathematics teachers have to take a Subject Knowledge Enhancement course if they don’t have a degree in maths. That’s a good start, but it doesn’t address the 350,000 maths teachers already out there.
Everyone talks about the lack of maths teachers being trained, or how hard it is to find one when recruiting, but what are you doing with the ones you’ve already got?
A problem I don’t see discussed a lot is that many teachers end up with Foundation maths classes year after year. There seems to be an unwritten rule in some schools that teaching the Higher course is a privilege that needs to be earned, or weaker teachers teach bottom sets, or stronger teachers teach bottom sets.
All of these cases can (and often do) result in perfectly good maths teachers becoming deskilled. Forgetting the Higher course, losing confidence in it’s content, and becoming unusable when the timetabling plans come around. “don’t risk that group on that teacher, you need someone who knows the course back to front”. Well, there goes another year and ‘that teacher’ now knows even less maths, and is practically unemployable if they try and leave. Why? Because more and more schools are asking candidates to sit a maths ‘exam’ at interview. Depressing? Well, terribly so. But understandable. They have most likely experienced the ‘lack of subject knowledge’ themselves and can ill afford to go through it again. Did they fix it? Or did they just label it.
But all of this is as unnecessary as a teacher’s oath (…must…resist…urges).
Let’s all fix this right now. Just take these painfully simple steps:
1. Focus your department meetings on MATHS pedagogy. Always. “How are we going to teach algebra?”, “Tell me about your lesson on circle theorems, I thought it sounded fantastic earlier”
2. Have a maths fact of the week. Share tidbits that sit just on the borders of the curriculum, but really help teachers – like the fact that the division symbol is a fraction in disguise. Or that a number ‘squared’ is called that because of the area of a square.
3. Don’t judge. Just because you might know it, doesn’t mean everyone knows it. Ask yourself how they would know it, without finding it out themselves? Most of these things were not taught to them (/us). Don’t assume they are as driven to discover more about maths as you might be. To some people, it’s just a job. We need to accept that.
4. Make maths exciting again – for staff. Would you really think maths was AMAZING if you had just taught the same old shit for 40 years and NEVER looked outside of those topics? It could be just a few years before that attitude creeps in. How are you fixing that? Difficult, thought provoking puzzles could help (ooh, I think I know where to find some…), or brain busters, or exciting new ways of presenting topics, or non-curriculum based lessons at the end of term. Organise a cool maths-based week that has NOTHING to do with the curriculum. Start an extra-curricular activity. Figure it out.
5. Rotate your staff. Or if you have no control over it, demand rotation as part of your professional development.
Don’t neglect what you already have because that’s the only thing you can truly influence right now.
PS I’m featured in Behind The Mathematician this week. Yay!