‘Love English, Hate Maths?’

In Debates and Polemics by Alex Quigley0 Comments

I love a leading and provocative title, but I have you reading so I will assuage all those Maths teachers nice and early that this is not an attack at all – indeed, it is quite the opposite – it is a robust defence of Maths and the teaching and learning of mathematics. You heard it right: ‘English teacher writes in defence of Maths‘.

Now, as a Subject Leader of English, I am acutely conscious of the pressures faced by core subject teachers, in both English and Maths, and particularly those of the Subject Leaders of Maths. In many ways I recognise that it is not really a fair playing field. One key critical factor, which as a teacher of children (and not just English) irks me greatly, is that society most often supports and celebrates the majesty of reading and writing, but it openly scorns mathematical study – the weight of culture actually militates against the learning of mathematics.

The impact of cultural conditioning cannot be underestimated and the stigmatising power of language cuts deep and endures. I was brought up in a literate working class background, rich in reading and good humoured talk. Education was seen as a privilege and I was warmly supported in a loving climate. I am whole-heartedly thankful for brilliant and loving parents.

One small failure on their part is that they “couldn’t do Maths”. This familiar refrain passed readily onto me and around about thirteen years of age (after I had been temporarily sparked by a brilliant Maths teacher, Mr Laing, who openly debated his early struggles with Maths, and his Damoclean conversion to becoming passionate about Maths). I pretty much stopped trying hard at Maths. I couldn’t see the benefits, I was happy to take the easy route, perpetuate the stereotypes passed onto me.

Does this sound familiar?

The stigma of illiteracy is anathema for our society so we do something about it – we need to tackle innumeracy with the same sense of importance.There is a widespread societal acceptance that mathematics cannot be learnt easily, in fact, from many the notion that it cannot be learnt at all; not like those supposedly ‘natural‘ subjects like English, or Art, or PE. Of course, all of this is nonsense! As is the stereotype that those ‘blessed’ with mathematical skill are particular geniuses! From birth, children are indoctrinated with this closed system of thought, which of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Children become unwilling to put in the time and effort to develop the mastery, so the mastery, and the pleasure therein never comes. Anyone who has read Carole Dweck’s ‘Mindset‘ will be fully versed in the destructive power of such culturally vindicated language. Day after day, these negative representations wear away at the will of students like water hollowing out a stone.

As humans we are naturally averse to thinking, we seek this state so we can focus upon the important stuff, like danger and our primal needs for survival. This neatly explains why I prefer to snack on sweets and not tackle complex mathematical problems of an evening! So children, intelligent and wily creatures that they are, will do their damnedest to avoid the difficult thinking and challenges that attend learning in Maths lessons.

I wrote recently about reading great, and challenging, literature, like Shakespeare, to enjoy what W B Yeats termed “the fascination of what’s difficult”. The same principals apply to Maths, only children are vindicated in their avoidance of tackling the subject by negative cultural language and stereotypes. See this great collection of clips from films for irrefutable evidence of a deep rooted cultural bias against mathematical study:

Now, this video is comic in its collective negativity, but how many students are turned against mathematics because of these less than subtle social messages?

In ancient times, Plato and the Greeks viewed the study of mathematics as purifying the soul – nowadays it is depicted as a pursuit for unpopular geeks alone! Let’s remember that children suffer from tremendous social forces in their daily lives that impacts upon their behaviour and their habits; no more so then teens, who walk through a status and identity minefield everyday, acutely sensitive of their appearance to their peers. The ‘Maths geek‘ stereotype is more seriously damaging than it may first appear.

How many countless children have been turned off from committing the hours and hours of deliberate practice needed to help our working memory fit to deal with challenging mathematical problems? It is ironically this crucial deliberate practice which eventually can render Maths ‘easy’, or even, dare I use the term ‘natural’.

Compare this with the cultural capital firing the English canon. Shakespeare has been rendered cool by DiCaprio; television shows of great novels are abound; tablet devices and eReaders are cool accessories to boost reading; poetry is aligned with music and more. We can draw upon politics, comedy, the media – the list goes on. Even as an English teacher I can draw inspiration from ‘The Dead Poets Society‘ (and I shamelessly do!) or ‘Dangerous Minds‘ (well, I plainly don’t!).

Our study in English is reliant upon vocabulary recognition (see this excellent essay by E.D. Hirsch on the topic), which of course is bolstered by our wider culture; by talk with the family and by the myriad of texts that surround students in their daily lives. Much learning is tacit and implicit – we can simply draw upon that learning in English.

Don’t get me wrong, reading is beset by challenges – again, these are outlined by Hirsch in the essay linked above – but many cultural benefits are in our favour too. We are the popular big brother to the ten stone Maths weakling.

What needs to happen is that the pervasive cultural narrative attached to mathematics needs to fundamentally shift. You may well quibble that that is a rather tall order for individuals without Rupert Murdoch-like media power…and you would be right. We can and should; however, do our best to change our local culture, the culture of our school, or family of schools, including feeder Primaries and more(this language sets the rot in early, like gender ‘appropriate’ toys the dye is cast quick).

We must work from Primary level and even before to celebrate the rich pleasures to be found in number. We need to work with parents in highlighting to them the power of their language – a crash course in ‘growth mindset’ thinking – as well as actually dealing with the language we use (many a staff room would be littered with similar attitudes to mathematics based in my experience).

We can also illuminate how mathematics it is rooted in everything we do (perhaps school staff should read some books on the topic, like ‘The Undercover Economist‘ or ‘Alex’s Adventures in Numberland‘ to name just a couple). We need to articulate how it can make you eminently employable – wealth, status and power are for some reason very appealing to teenagers. We could even promote careers in ethical banking for example, god knows we need more of those! Effectively, we need many more mathematical role models who can articulate its value in a whole host of ways.

Ultimately, we need to make mathematics real – we must draw away the veil of mystery from mathematical concepts and make mathematics relevant to everyday life. We must make it feel relevant beyond the four walls of the classroom and the exam hall. Hollywood, nor anybody else, is likely to do it for us.

George Sampson famously quoted, in 1921, “Every teacher in English is a teacher of English“. Perhaps we need to shift our school cultures to ensure that people think and talk with the notion that ‘every teacher in English is a teacher of Maths‘.

Useful Resources/Ideas:

I’m no Maths expert; however, I have found these really interesting ideas that certainly got me thinking about inspiring the teaching and learning of mathematics:

http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html A great talk from DD Meyer, an American Maths teacher who provides a lively vision for mathematics in the classroom.

http://blog.mrmeyer.com/ The great blog of the aforementioned Meyer.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/video/2013/jan/22/algebra-mathematics-masterclass-video A great teaching master class on using mathematics to engage and inspire in a real way.

http://www.ted.com/talks/arthur_benjamin_s_formula_for_changing_math_education.html Another intriguing TED talk to spark thinking about re shaping the teaching and learning of mathematics.

http://maths4us.org/about/ This programme looks to tackle many of the issues outlined in my post.

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