Thursday 28 January 2016

The Elitist Nature of Mathematics

I have always received good grades in maths. This made me feel special. I remember that day in year six when I, along with just two other students from my large-ish Primary school, sat the level 6 Maths SATs paper in a special room. Why was it just us three? Because we were special. There was only a level 6 paper for maths, not for English or science. Why? Because maths is special. Because maths can reach levels of difficulty that English and science cannot.

I remember the day in year seven when in the very first week we had a maths test. Because maths is about showing how much you know. I remember the day, a week later, when we were put into sets for maths. Not any other subject, just maths. Why? Because in maths, ability is important. In maths, the clever students need to be separated from the bad students so that they can learn hard maths unhindered.

I remember the day in year nine when I sat my SATs, and again, English and Science only went up to level 7, but maths went up to level 8. Only the top class got to do that paper. It was a paper for special people, for the chosen ones who were good at maths.

I remember the day in year eleven when I chose my A-Level subjects. I remember being told, "you're good at maths, so you should do maths". Other people were told, "you enjoy English, you should pick English," or "you enjoy design, you should pick design". Because maths is something you do because you're good at it, not because you enjoy it.  

I remember the day in year thirteen when I chose the courses to apply for at university. I considered doing Psychology. I loved Psychology. But lots of people are good at Psychology. I was the best in my school at Maths. So I chose Maths. Not many people are good at Maths. I chose my university because it was the best non-Oxbridge, non-London university for Mathematics research. The cleverest mathematicians work there, so it must be the best place.

I found university maths very hard. I was not that good at it. So I stopped liking maths. Maths is not fun when you're falling behind. There was no help given at my university. The professors lectured but they did not teach. Because if you need help learning university maths, you're not good enough to be here. 

Look at my bolded statements. These are the beliefs that I developed as a result of my education. These beliefs are shared by many whether they consider themselves good at maths or not. If you ask someone what maths was like for them at school, they almost always answer by commenting on their performance, e.g. "I was always good/bad at maths". If you ask someone what, say, Geography, was like for them at school, they almost always comment on their enjoyment of it, e.g. "I found it boring/interesting". This is because maths is seen to be a subject that is all about ability and performance.

I remember the day, not too long ago, when I was looking at year eleven students who had chosen to do maths A-Level next year.

I said, "She's in set four [out of nine], is she deluded? She can't do maths A-Level!"

I said, "Students shouldn't be encouraged to pick maths unless they're in set one"

I said, "Maths isn't like Psychology, not just anyone can do it!"

I said, "They need to realise maths is really hard, it's not like other A-Levels"

I said, "I'm sure she'll try really hard but she just doesn't have what it takes"

I cannot  believe that I said these things just a week ago. Since reading Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler, I have completely changed my beliefs about maths as a subject. No one is born good at maths. No one is born bad at maths. Maths is not about answering questions correctly. Maths is not about passing tests. Maths is about connections and communication. I almost want to petition to have maths re-named to that in my school. While I'm at it, maybe I should re-name my blog to "not just tests".

Here's what I think we should do to overcome this problem:
-Stop testing students in maths in the first week of year seven.
-Don't put students into sets in maths until you absolutely have to (do we ever have to? Finland doesn't).
-Stop praising students for getting answers right in maths lessons.
-Don't ever tell a student they are good at maths (I hope it goes without saying to never tell a student they're bad at maths).
-If your top set year eleven study Additional Maths or Further Maths GCSE, don't make it just for top set, make it an opt-in subject for any student who loves maths.

Let's eradicate this ridiculous notion that maths is different from every other subject. As maths teachers, it is up to us to end this.

Emma x x x


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