The problem with Maths

Louise Ashmore

Louise Ashmore is an education consultant and school improvement partner. She has been a head of Maths in two Secondary schools in West Yorkshire and most recently a deputy headteacher responsible for Curriculum and Standards. In 2016, Louise was designated as a specialist leader of education for Mathematics, Leadership of the Curriculum and Closing the Gap. She lives in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, with her husband (@ashmore_edu), and their three beautiful children.

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Image credit: Pixabay // Meditations Image credit: Pixabay // Meditations

James and Louise play a game of pool. Louise strikes the ball at a 45-degree angle and watches with great fascination to see how many times the ball bounces against the cushion. She wonders if the number of bounces would change if she had a bigger or a smaller pool table. She drags James around countless pool halls, keeping a record in a hand-drawn tally chart attached to her clipboard, until she believes that she has collected enough data to find a pattern. After several hours of puzzling, Louise finds a rule and is able to use this rule to find out how many bounces there will be on any pool table in the world!

Excited? No, I didn’t think so. This is a simplified version of my own GCSE Maths (circa 1999) coursework question. It filled me with dread as a 16-year-old, and even now as a Maths teacher it doesn’t really float my boat. You see, this is part of the problem. The Mathematics community, exam boards included, seem to find it incredibly difficult to write Maths problems which Secondary age students can relate to. A few years ago, I remember seeing tweets from Year 11 students across the country who wanted to bury Mary under her conservatory rather than measure its floor plan (thanks, Edexcel, for that one).

If we go back to the planned introduction of a greater proportion of problem solving and functional Maths questions in the GCSE, nearly ten years ago (I know, it really is that long ago), which other huge systematic change happened around the same time? That’s it. The removal of the Year 9 SATS. Shoot me now, but I actually quite liked the SATS [cowers under desk]. Putting aside the rights and wrongs of testing in Year 9, the style of the questions and the level of challenge was exactly what current Year 11 students have been missing on their journey through Secondary school. The majority of questions were functional, in unfamiliar or real-life contexts and they made students think. Go back a few years before that and you will also find the removal of Maths problem solving investigations for coursework. Add this to the more recent issues of reduced local authority support and the severe lack of qualified Maths teachers, and you can see why this has become a perfect storm.

I am in the incredibly privileged position of seeing a lot of Maths teaching in many different schools with widely differing contexts. But the one thing that connects them all is the difficulty that teachers are still having with the shift in focus. The overwhelming changes to the level of challenge and content in the new 9-1 GCSE take up a significant amount of extra teaching time and so, despite best efforts, problem solving and contextual Maths are still difficult to dedicate enough time to, in order to bring about real improvements in students’ resilience.

“We seem to find it incredibly difficult to write Maths problems which students can relate to.”

Back in the day, creating a snazzy Maths worksheet would only take about twenty minutes because whilst it was, of course, important to include questions which challenged students’ misconceptions, Maths questions were not expected to be heavily worded or particularly functional or contextual in nature. The problem now is that for a teacher to create these resources from scratch, is not only time consuming but actually quite a challenge. It really is hard to write questions that don’t involve bread rolls and hot dogs, gardens with ponds, or various flavour yoghurts, let alone ones that teenagers can relate to.

For this reason alone, it is simply not possible for Maths teachers to work in isolation any more. The advent of so many internet resources is wonderful, but rifling through them to find an appropriate question or resource can eat away at PPA time or (who am I kidding?) precious evenings. So what is the solution? Collaboration.

The extent to which you can collaborate depends largely on the type and size of school or academy that you find yourself in. Maths departments are generally much bigger than, say, a modern foreign languages department, and as such even collaboration in its most basic sense (within your own team) could save time and energy. Using departmental meeting and training time to source or write differentiated problem solving questions into the scheme of work is essential. Even as an experienced teacher it can be a challenge to dream up questions “Even collaboration in its most basic sense can save time and energy.”so imagine yourself in the shoes of a bright-eyed NQT or ITT student (who, I should add, may be too young to have sat the Year 9 SATS or to have completed Maths coursework). Feel old? I do.

The real time saver could come from greater Maths communities; we need to replace the largely lost local authority support with MAT communities or simply local school federations. Not all schools will be studying towards the same exam board, but the principles remain the same. Imagine all the GCSE topics split between six local schools and then split again between all of their teachers. Imagine time to design great quality questions and resources and have the pleasure of seeing them used across other schools.

But these things will only happen if we make them happen. Speak to your senior teams and local heads of Maths, and set up a termly get together on a venue carousel. Maybe even call it a Mathsmeet? Local pool halls may even be available for a Maths night out. Oh, the possibilities.

Anyway, that’s enough from me, I’ve got a bathroom to tile. I wonder how many cross-shaped, L-shaped and T-shaped spacers I’ll need… surely there must be a formula for that?

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