Why Maths Heaven?

When I first thought up the name of Maths Heaven, many on my media course questioned it. They said – “sounds like hell to me!” and “shouldn’t it be Maths Haven?” and even “sounds a bit religious, are you sure?”

I could understand these comments completely, because anyone who knows me well knows that I’m quite firmly against organised religion, having turned away from my Church of England upbringing at around aged 14 – I used to sing solos in the church choir, I wore a red habit and walked up the aisle of many a church wedding back in the 1980’s. But I was purely incentivised by the need for pocket money and I never really bought into the whole “god” idea.

So yes, Maths Heaven is a strange name. However through my career I’d met so many people who needed saving. They would describe how their previous experience of maths had been terrible and they had flunked it or had completely lost confidence as they aged. Retraining themselves in maths was the way they could break through their barriers, whether it was for for increasing their employability or chance of promotion, building their confidence with everyday calculations and budgeting, or they simply wanted to train themselves to think logically and methodically. So I thought, maybe there needs to be a maths sanctuary?

People’s relationships with maths in anglicised countries such as the UK tends to be one of two things; either very positive or very negative. At parties when I tell people I’m a maths teacher there seems only to be two responses.

Pie chart showing people's response to learning I am a maths teacher: 25% "Wow you must be really smart" 75% "I hate math"

I’m sorry I can’t find the source of this graph, but if this belongs to you, please contact me so I can credit you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. “Oh, I lovvvve maths! So logical! I love Sudoku! Tell me, what do you think about Fermat’s Last Theorem…” To my shame I tend to glaze over during this kind of conversation because truthfully, I have no interest in any kind of higher level mathematics. I hate Sudoku. It’s fine, but it’s for other people, not me.
  2. “I hate maths. I failed maths. My teacher hated me. I couldn’t do it.” This person tends to drift slowly away from me and towards the punchbowl so I don’t pursue it – it’s not a good talking point.

I remain convinced that these two totally different responses are a result of our education system in the UK. School pupils seem to go two ways. They either have a “top set” good experience with a dedicated teacher who helps them to improve and think independently, take Higher Tier and head off to university, OR they have an utterly horrendous experience which involves being streamed into the bottom set in year 7, dumped with a PE teacher who has been bribed to teach 4 extra hours and is disinterested and/or underpaid, they take Foundation Tier and are in class with students who are more interested in chucking pencils about and Snapchatting pictures of their trout pout to Steve from year 12. The difference between student experiences of the maths classroom is WILD.

In a SurveyMonkey I created in October 2019, I asked some of my students to comment on their previous maths experiences. These were students from further education, all of which were studying maths in order to improve their GCSE grade or Functional Skills. It wasn’t a huge sample (81 responses) however the results were telling.

For the question “Do you like maths?”

  • 26% (21 students) “I absolutely hate maths”. 26%.
  • 31% (25 students) “Meh, I need maths but I don’t like it”.
  • 22% (18 students) “I don’t love maths but I don’t hate it”
  • 20% (16 students) “I like maths”
  • 1.2% (1 student) “I love maths, pass the Sudoku!”

For the question “What are the main reasons you didn’t attain a grade 4 in GCSE Maths at school?”

Survey results

Results from my “SurveyMonkey” survey of 81 Further Education students studying maths as part of their study programme (voluntary participation in the survey), October 2019

It’s really important to note that 27.5% (22 students) responded that they had lots of different maths teachers at school. That’s one of the most common reasons I get from talking to my students in class; that they had lots of different teachers throughout years 10 and 11; one student commented on this survey that their class had 7 teachers just in Year 11.  SEVEN. How can any student make movements towards attaining a good grade in GCSE Maths when their teacher barely knows their name? It’s a national disgrace that has been perpetuated by funding cuts and fewer incentives for good teachers to stay in their profession.

I do feel that in the last 20 years (50 years?) this has occurred due to funding cuts and increasing levels of child poverty. It is certainly ten times more challenging for a child from a working or benefits class background to attain a good grade in mathematics than it is for Cynthia the public schoolgirl who has had a home tutor since year 6.

How do you incentivise teachers to stay in a school or college? Inner city London suffers this far more in my experience, but it has been happening nationwide for years. With a majority female workforce which is reliant upon hourly paid lecturers on zero hour contracts to cover the gaps, the ground has been constantly shifting for maths teachers, regardless of whether they’re committed to their profession. I know hourly paid lecturers who have been forced to take on two or three contracts in order to supplement their income as their hours are cut in line with funding cuts. One maths teacher I knew used to work nights in a taxi cab firm answering telephones. He spent his day in a daze, yawning and looking like death warmed up. What kind of life is that, where your day involves teaching 15 year olds from 9am and your “evenings” involve wrangling drunkards into cabs until 4am? How can somebody in that position truly dedicate themselves to the profession?

I’m in a full time permanent teaching position. Despite budget cuts and increasing class sizes, my employment is pretty secure and has been throughout the Covid-19 disaster, because I am digitally competent and confident to teach entirely online if I need to. Even if my post were to be made redundant, I’m gonna be able to find work in pretty much any maths teaching job, online or in person. I am very fortunate – I know this.

But what about those teachers (and students) who don’t get on well with digital learning? What about those people who have lost most of their income source during COVID-19? Where will they be in one year, five years, ten years time? It’s a grim outlook. Let’s drop the mantra “no child left behind”. Many children will be left behind. Many teachers will leave the profession because they’re forced out. What’re we gonna do about it?

I’m not going to pretend I know the right answer but I know what the wrong answer is, and that’s cutting funding and staff, and continuing to employ people on zero hour contracts. If they’re not good enough to be on a permanent contract, then why are you employing them? Why are we accepting that a teacher has the qualification to teach a subject, but then we don’t give them any reason to invest time and effort in the college or their students? We must give teachers a reason to stay; a reason to invest in their own professional development and to get to know students well enough to see them grow and achieve. And we must make effective training the heart of the profession – digital training; training to help them communicate with students effectively; training to manage their workload. That way, teachers have a reason to stay, and students have access to a stable classroom, and a teacher who is invested in their future.

Oh I know I’m holding up an ideal, and how can this ever come to pass? However, if I don’t write this, I get really bogged down in the helplessness of it all. I’ve considered moving out of London and changing jobs, but that means abandoning the very students that I want to help. I’ve considered management (and done it, albeit only for 2 years), but it wasn’t the right post – it incorporated management of an ALS team and wasn’t actually managing the Maths department so that distracted me from maths and my passion. As an Advanced Practitioner in Mathematics my frustration is that I can only do so much – I can train staff and offer bespoke in-house training, it’s part of my job, which I love. However, if staff don’t want to or don’t have time to develop themselves, I can’t help them. Differences in opinon also get in the way, which prevents departments from addressing their individual needs. Something further needs to be done to incentivise training for teachers to reach professional standards, and unfortunately (and against my instincts) I don’t believe it can be voluntary.

For example, who remembers the IfL (Institute for Learning)? I joined the IfL in 2007 just before it became compulsory – at which point if you were an active lecturer you had to join and log 30 hours of training (pro rata) every year to retain your professional status. In 2012 there was a huge hoo-ha about the membership fees being transferred to the teachers to pay; compulsory membership became voluntary and so most members allowed their membership to lapse. The IfL was a great idea in concept, with an objective to “promote education and training for the public benefit by the enhancement and maintenance of the quality, standards and practice of learning and teaching.”

It all feels very bleak. I named Maths Heaven in order to try to make sense of the nation’s attitude towards maths. It’s up in the clouds; an imaginary, beautiful world where you can go to enable yourself to improve, being greeted at the doors by St Theta, receiving a goody bag with a compass, a calculator and a rhubarb and custard lolly; you’ve been saved from maths purgatory and released into enlightenment. I dunno, in hindsight it does sound a bit god-y and magical and all too good to be true. Sigh. Maybe I should have gone with Maths Hell! The visuals would’ve been more fun to create.

How important is maths to us, really? We don’t seem to want to assign enough value to it in this country and other anglicised nations such as the US and Australia.

"Richard Branson's Failures: Virgin Cola, Virgin Cars, Virgin Clothing and Virgin Vodka"

Branson was the dyslexic 80’s Elon Musk, but wasn’t successful in all his ventures

And we love to perpetuate this attitude. “Sir Richard Branson didn’t need Maths” Branson famously didn’t pass GCSE Maths, but do look it up, he dropped out of school. Until then he attended a public school; his mother was a successful entrepreneur, his father a barrister and his grandfather Sir George Branson, a Judge in the High Court – Branson had dyslexia and is clearly an astute businessman however however had no need for GCSE Maths with his upbringing. Lord Edit: “Baron” Alan Sugar is another businessman who famously left school with only one GCSE, but everybody seems to ignore that at age 16 he obtained a job at the Ministry of Education as a statistician. I doubt it was a GCSE qualification (most likely an O Level in his era) however who’s betting on the subject that he DID pass?

The media rolls out a list of names EVERY YEAR in August to console those students who didn’t get the GCSE grades they wanted. In some respects I agree that we shouldn’t hang everything on GCSE grades, because many people go on to have successful careers without the “expected” qualifications, and especially in the changing digital world where skills can actually be learned, practised and developed independently of educational institutions. But yeah, the vast majority of students who don’t pass GCSE maths (with a grade 4 or higher) will need to use maths in their future, whether it’s for household budgeting, at work, even in their hobbies and pastimes. The level of denial on this point is high – I once commented on a forum discussion about maths in careers and although there were many posters supporting what i was saying (i.e. maths is pretty much in everything) I was set upon by a collection of furious posters, claiming that I was making it all up and that they hadn’t used a single bit of the maths they learned in school and one person even stated that they left school with an E in GCSE Maths and have worked successfully in construction for 20 years and they now earn more than me. They were not only making a hell of an assumption regarding my salary, however the idea that somebody working in construction thought that they weren’t using maths of any kind was deeply disturbing to me. I mean, it’s fundamental whether you regard getting to work on time to be a feat of mathematical skill, or whether you are engineering a bridge over a motorway to be strong enough to support lorries. Maths. is. Involved. At. Every. Single. Stage..

I think it’s easier for people to claim that maths isn’t important to their career because it doesn’t require them to do anything about it. Improving skills in maths requires effort and time. It means you have to work out what you can and can’t do. It reveals your strengths, but more importantly you have to face your weaknesses. Who is going to admit that they can’t divide without the use of a calculator? There’s a huge stigma in society regarding innumeracy, (it’s not as bad as illiteracy, but a society explicitly intent on improving basic maths and English skills must feel very threatening to people who didn’t pass their GCSE when they were in school). Can you imagine being a successful businessperson and being exposed as “bad at maths”? I empathise strongly, but doubling down on the reasons why people need maths qualifications and refusing to admit that lack of skill (or inability to spot errors) is unhealthy and damaging to our society, our economy, to our children, to our education system and to our safety (we’re back to that motorway bridge). Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

I could write here about the difference in attitudes and culture of maths in anglicised nations and the comparison with eastern countries such as Japan, Korea, India, Singapore and so on. What makes their culture of learning maths so different? Are their methods any better? How do their education systems differ to ours and why are they more successful? Are they more successful, or are they just different? I think that’s a whole different blog post (or ten).

Ok, I’m done. Maybe you didn’t make it this far; fair enough. I’m gonna write more regularly over the summer as it’s cathartic and I’ve reset my password. Get in touch, tell me what you think. Tell me if there’s any topics you want me to write about.

Write down your blinking password, Zoe.

Well, I feel like a duck at the moment, my flippers are paddling away manically but I’m all calm on top.  Well, perhaps more like an inverted duck.  Panicking.

Just an update to say that I haven’t updated the site for a long time due to being hacked a while back.  The hackers redirected my WordPress page to that of a shop for Gucci handbags.  I was only alerted to this development by my mother, who inexplicably went to my website to find out how to contact me.  As a result of the hacking I changed my login and password to make them much more secure from hackers; which inevitably led to the site being totally secure from 100% of potential users, including myself.  It’s taken until now to work out how to reset my WordPress password, and I’m still not sure that it’s totally sorted yet – time will tell!

Of course my last post was about Gove deciding not to mess with the GCSEs – that couldn’t be MORE out of date than it is now; firstly we all know that the GCSEs ARE going to be thoroughly messed with (a good thing?  answers on a postcard please) and *NEWSFLASH* Gove is out on his ear. The latter point may or may not be a good thing: Ben Goldacre commented on Twitter that although Gove was maligned for his radical reforms, he was very much in favour of RCTs in research within education.  I wonder if the new Education secretary will be quite so keen? Let’s wait and see.

In other news, I’ve recently quit my bottom-of-the-rung lecturer position in calm, tranquil Hampshire to take up a crazy-arse Curriculum Manager post in a large London FE college. The post is a new one within the college (an amalgamation of two related curriculum areas) and I’m of the opinion that it’s the right combination.  I should be well placed within the college to raise the profile of both Maths and English within the vocational areas (rather than responsibility for discrete Maths or English departments).  The college has a brand spanking new principal lined up, and there’s room for development in many areas.  It seems I’m going to be quite busy in the coming months.

So, I moved to Fulham last week, and I’m just settling in.  I’ve been warned off living in London plenty of times (oh the crime, oh the landlords, oh the tube, oh the cost of living) but I think I’ve fallen on my feet.  I’ve found a nice area to live, the cat’s come with me and is settling in nicely, and my landlord appears to be a scrupulous and straight-up fellow.  What could possibly go wrong?

If I manage to lock myself out of my WordPress account again, at least this post should suggest a reason why it’s not been updated in a while.

There’s several options as to my lack of updates:

1) I’m dead from knife crime

2) I’m overworked and/or underpaid

4) I’m being pursued by loan sharks

5) I’m particularly good at setting up awesome unhackable passwords

6) I’m very bad at writing down passwords

7) I’m having too much fun living it up and partying in the West End.*

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

*This is my imaginary world

Apparently “GCSE” is a good name for a General Certificate of Secondary Education

So Michael Gove performed a U-turn at the last minute and has left the GCSE alone… for now.  What a relief.

It seems that lots of people feel that the GCSE has had its day. There are some sensible arguments, but there also seems to be a hardcore of traditionalists who pore over league tables, humming and hawing about the decline of standards and  the three “R’s”. As much as I agree with some of these sentiments (I was fortunate
enough to have parents who emphasised the learning of my times tables when I was seven) I do think that this calling for exam reform has all the features of a public relations rebrand and none of the foresight of how schools and colleges will deal with forced reform that is based upon ill-informed deep feelings about a subject that has changed considerably since the 1970s.

When the GCSE qualification was introduced, it was the cure-all for a flawed set of qualifications, the GCE “O” Level and the CSE. Children would no longer be ostracised by a two tier system; they could all take the same exam and be compared by the same standard. How… idyllic.

Michael Gove?  Who is he, anyway?

Michael Gove holding an invisible canteloupe melon. Photo taken from The Telegraph (c)

Obviously, the GCSE Maths exams became so unwieldy in content that they needed to be separated into three tiers, Foundation, Intermediate and Higher.  This allowed for the vast variation between candidates.  A few years later even that was too complicated, so the exams were streamlined into just two tiers, Foundation or Higher.  On the chalk face, this allowed schools to stream secondary pupils; concentrating on underpinning the basics for the Foundation Tier candidates and really stretch the Higher Tier candidates.  In reality, this just meant that highly qualified/paid teachers teach the “Higher” candidates, and the PE / IT / Science / supply / unqualified teachers teach the “Foundation” candidates.  Because of the shortage of qualified maths teachers in England, secondary schools have an extraordinary turnover of staff teaching the Foundation Tier groups because they require greatly enhanced behaviour management skills as well as mathematical competence; unfortunately neither is easy to come by.  I’ve heard stories of teachers in tears, tables going out of windows, and students boasting of their horrendous behaviour in secondary maths classes.

So, unfortunately on the Foundation Tier, you’d have to do really well (75% or higher) in order to attain the coveted grade C.  Or should we call it “The Golden Ticket”. And that’s easier said than done when you’re aged 15 and surrounded by distractions, disruption and 500ml of Relentless.

Every year, I teach students on GCSE retake course.  Each student has a different story to tell, about the number of supply teachers they had in school, about the humiliation they suffered from a certain maths teacher, about the irrelevance that most of the maths curriculum has to real life application.  It’s my job to try to turn these students around, to make them start feeling positive and commit to achieving the C grade that will allow them to cross the divide between being branded a failure (yes, they all consider a GCSE D grade a “FAIL”, even thought it’s not) and being hailed as a success and going to university.  Gosh, I was glad to see that this new-fangled GCSE brought the two tier elitist society-dividing system to an end (<– Sarcasm).

Exam grades are known to have increased year upon year, but for the first time last year the percentage of C grades fell when OfQual “cracked down” on these thicky kids and their cheating teachers, by denying a large proportion their golden ticket onto A Level, a collection of five magic C grades.  But at least the government is on it, right?  On it like a car bonnet!  The league tables help with that, right? <–pssst… more sarcasm)

Wrong. Since the development of the GCSE curriculum in the nineties, the world has changed. OfQual has rightly allowed the GCSE syllabus to move with the times. Kids have access to better calculators; better internet, better opportunities to learn in general.  And we only have to look to our everyday use of smartphones and app software to see that it’s no longer important what math facts you can commit to memory, but how effective you are at solving problems using the tools that you have available.

The ridiculous squawking of politicians and ill-informed “education fascists journalists” that erupts on a yearly basis to return education “back to basics” is designed to appeal to a certain demographic; those people who learnt that way themselves. Again, I learnt a number of skills by rote when I was very young, so I am to be included in that demographic and it helps me more now than ever before because I’m now a Maths teacher, and I’m expected to teach it.  But most people don’t become maths teachers. Most people don’t pull out a pencil and paper every time they need to calculate. What do they do? They reach into their pocket and pull out a mobile phone calculator or go on the internet, or use an app that is much, much quicker. And let’s face it, less prone to error.

While teaching GCSE Maths this week, I was forced to remind my students that they must commit to memory the basic formula to calculate the area of a circle. They will not be given the formula in the exam. Traditionalists may agree,  you cannot have a formula handed to you on a plate every time you need to calculate the area of a circle, can you?  However, if you were in employment and needed to calculate the area of a circle, the fact is that you would either look it up and substitute numbers into the formula, or you would find an internet page that very kindly works it out for you. Would you need to remember it? Do you remember it now, after X years? Well, you might if you understand how it works. But the fact is, not many people do. Young and old, new methods and traditional, few people can clearly explain the reasoning behind long multiplication, let alone area of a circle.

Conceptual understanding is key. Rote learning has its place, but mainly for the purposes of passing exams.  If you fully understand the concept of multiplication, you can use a traditional method or the grid method or the Italian method because you’re going to get the correct answer and be able to verify it.  Many adults do not understand the “new” methods of multiplication, and I’ve heard children relay stories from home about how Dad rubbished the grid method and taught Jonny the “proper” way. So when little Jonny comes home from school with multiplication homework to do, he has this conflict to contend with.  Most of the time, both teachers and parents have little success, because not only do children get the two methods mixed up, but well-meaning (and numerate) mums and dads may not be able to explain what they are actually doing, just that that’s how you do it. Of course, there are maths teachers out there who have the same problem, so let’s not be naive (particularly at primary level, where you’d expect conceptual understanding to be of the highest priority).

I coach young adults who have been taught several ways of doing multiplication, and I usually have to go right back to the basics to tackle the conceptual issues of multiples. The fact is, any nobber can learn a method by rote, but both new and old methods have the same issues when it comes to understanding how they work.

Anyhow, surely the point of qualification reform is to provide employers with the information they need to select staff with the right skills.  A truly progressive qualification must assess a candidate’s ability to find and use information selectively; to analyse using numerical strategies and to communicate numerical ideas clearly and succinctly.