Monday, 18 March 2013

When the teacher is the reason you can't learn maths


I was talking to a father last week who told me the old, familiar story. His teenager son came home from school and asked, "When will I ever need to use all this stuff they are trying to teach us in maths at school?"

Heard it before? I have - even from my own son! (shock, horror)

If the maths isn't taught as being relevant to daily life, then maybe the teacher doesn't know that it is

Before I am disbarred from the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers and hung from the nearest lamp post, can I please make one observation?

Maybe when bad learning is happening, maybe there is also bad teaching happening.

There - I've said it.

And being a teacher, I share this responsibility. It is my responsibility to the kids I teach to be the best teacher I can be, to know my subject and to make the best decisions I can to help them to learn.

Part of my challenge to myself is to make my teaching relevant, comprehensible and interesting for my students. I need to engage them at the zone of proximal development but I also need to engage them at the zone of proximal interest and relevance.

The solution to bad teaching is teacher improvement, not teacher replacement. And then there is my role as a mentor and colleague to other teachers around me - what can I do to support them to be the best teachers they can be?

Sounds simple, or simplistic, doesn't it?

But maths doesn't have to be useful for daily life, I hear you say

Really? Then what is it's purpose? To keep mathematicians employed? To make school difficult for young children? If it doesn't serve a practical purpose then why do we bother?

I believe that Mathematics is a language we can use to make sense of the world around us. It helps us to understand who we are, where we are in place and time and how the world works. (You may recognise these as some of the transdisciplinary themes from the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme)

I don't think Mathematics was invented by Euclid, Archimedes and Pythagoras one day because they were bored and had nothing to do. They were interested because it was useful to them, it helped them to solve problems (real problems, not just made up ones from a text book) and because they understood the insights into the nature of reality they gained from this type of thinking.

Other purposes of maths

Now, I'm sure there are things that I was taught in senior high school maths that I have never had the need to refer to ever since. I don't do a lot of differential equations as a rule in the general course of a day. But some people do.

I have seen a TV police show where it seems that every crime can be solved by plugging in the correct mathematical formula. And there are probably many other (real) contexts in which (real) people employ higher-order maths skills each day in ways that I cannot begin to imagine. Even if I don't have a clue about how to launch a satellite into space, I pretty glad that someone else does, each and every time I turn on the TV, use my mobile phone or post a blog.

And having learnt all about calculus many years ago, even if I never use it again, I have benefitted from developing thinking processes and logic that I will use each day of my life.

Mathematics in the window factory

I attended the ACER research conference on teaching mathematics in 2010 in Melbourne. Ian Hunter, the aboriginal elder who performed the welcome to country ceremony, told a story of his own education.

He left school at the age of 15 and, like many young people, thought he would never have to do any more maths as long as he lived.

He got a job in a window factory.

And did more maths in 3 months in the factory than he had ever done in 10 years at school.

He said, "When I left school, I never thought I'd get a job as a mathematician."


  1. Hey, Bruce, loved reading all your ideas, thoughts, provocations. MM

  2. Helping me to eradicate my cosmic shame this year... Thanks B-Bomber. Another great post.

  3. Hi Bruce, thanks for sharing this.

    I often find myself reflecting with my colleagues over what is the teacher's most important role in teaching math. Is it delivering content or developing context?

    My feeling is delivering math content without context is like teaching someone to dance without ever letting them hear the music or dance to it. Seems odd and they will most likely never fully appreciate the dance. So why does this type of teaching sometimes happen in math classrooms?

    Mind you, I am not free from this same critique. I have taught math in a content driven manner, especially in my early years of teaching. I am attempting to change this now.

    Thanks for getting me to think, Bruce.


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