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We need to talk about maths

By Lauren Condon on 18 July 2017STEMLeadershipStrategyNSWstaffroom

“We can change the conversation from what’s difficult, to what’s valuable.” - Thomas O’Donahoo

A few months ago, General Assembly hosted a panel on Careers with Maths and when you put that many maths fanatics in one room, you know the conversation is going to be seriously passionate and seriously practical. And we were lucky enough to have Associate Professor Chris Tisdell from UNSW, Monica Wulff of Startup Muster, Kiatin Williamsen from UND and our very own co-founder, Thomas O’Donahoo.

If you don’t want to miss out on a single soundbite, Refraction Media live streamed the video onto Facebook and you can check out the whole panel below:

And if you’d prefer some maximum efficiency, well, here were the three big themes that emerged from the whole evening:

Maths has an image problem

Maths often gets a bad rap for being too boring, too hard and too abstract. Need proof? The panel opened with an anecdote of a student declaring maths should be illegal on Mondays.

The ‘dryness’ of maths is a bit of a punchline but to put it bluntly, kids are just being turned off maths. They’re pretty much expecting to be simultaneously bored and confused because ‘maths is only for smart people who want to pick up really maths-based careers’.

So what can we do?

Well, firstly, we probably have to change the language we use inside and outside of the classroom to shatter those stereotypes about maths. Instead of letting students say maths is ‘difficult’ or ‘only for smart people’, we need to explain that maths is all about building blocks and it’s just a matter of grasping one concept before moving on to the next. Explain to students that they just need to take maths step by step. Some people will take longer than others to get there, but it’s completely possible.

And secondly, we need to break down that discrepancy between the maths that students study in school and the places it will take them. It’s too easy for students to be unaware of how statistics will help them in a marketing career, or geometry will help them in landscaping and photography, or probability maths will help them become a top investment banker. In terms of a solution, the Careers with Maths magazine lays down a seriously important step in showing students how many career options maths will give them.

Maths isn’t necessarily being taught right

“We want to give strategies to schools and teachers that are actually practical." - Tom O’Donahoo

There’s no controversy here, it’s honestly just a combination of the nature of maths and the shortage of trained, active maths teachers.

The big concerns outlined by the panel were:

  • The fundamentals of maths aren’t being given enough attention, care and gravitas.

  • It’s not always a trained maths teacher doing the teaching.

  • Maths builds upon itself which means that something a student learns today is the basis of tomorrow’s lesson. The problem is, if a child doesn’t get a concept, they are pretty much cut off from understanding and appreciating maths.

So a first step would be to put more into our maths teachers. That means training and money. But it’s not a solution we can bring in overnight and definitely a long-term goal to work towards.

What we can do at the moment, is create a flexible and adaptable learning environment for students. The weaker students need the chance to consolidate their understanding so they can keep moving forward and the strongest kids need to be able to move as fast as they want to keep up the interest and the passion.

One solution is to give students access to digital resources that are available 24/7 and have the sole job of locking down fundamental ideas and skills. This means students can accelerate if they're grasping the concepts well (so they don't get bored) but most importantly it means students can sit with the content for as long as they need too in order to ensure they ‘get it.’ No more leaving students behind and compounding the problem.

Maths is too valuable for us to not make some changes

“We have to look at maths like a muscle, we don't all need to be bodybuilders but we all need to be able to lift a table.” - Mon Wulff

If there was one thing that every single person in that room agreed on, it’s that maths is just way too valuable for us not to make some serious changes to the image and the approach to teaching.

Maths needs to be framed as a basic life skill (which it really is) and something like financial literacy should be fundamental for everyone. Maths will take students from their mortgage to understanding the data in any career they choose. We could make more of an effort in schools to ask about a student’s role model - a big investment banker, an astronaut, a sportsman - and pinpoint the maths they would actually use in their career.

When teaching maths, we can take more steps to demonstrate how each topic is used across a range of careers or life challenges and be super realistic about why we need to know each step. Sometimes, it might just be admitting that one topic doesn’t have much practical application but it’s the building block for the next set of processes and ideas.

If students really understand how maths will empower them in their lives, they re-engage with the subject and not just see it as the burden of their week.

All in all

It says a lot that a panel on Careers in Maths really turned to focus on the barriers to students appreciating and understanding maths and its potential.

It’s powerful food for thought and seriously worthwhile to be aware of these barriers so that we can make informed choices when we’re talking about or teaching maths. The best part of this situation is that in this panel, we’re already seeing the beginning of the revolution with some passionate, skilled maths teachers, personalisable digital resources and initiatives that connect the maths taught in school to the skills that students will use to thrive in their career and life.


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