Wednesday 1 June 2016

Maths Shouldn't Be about "Getting it Right"

If I had a penny for every time I heard a highly-educated, professional adult say "I can't do Maths", I'd be rich (and if I had £1.74 for every time I heard it, I'd have the makings of a GCSE Maths question).

I've talked before in previous posts that I don't think it should be socially acceptable to say "I'm rubbish at Maths!" and I've received a little bit of criticism from them for being snobbish and condescending because, after all, not everyone can be good at Maths and some people just can't do maths, it's not their fault. What utter rubbish. However, I do understand why so many of you think this, and I'm going to make it my life's mission to undo this damage and encourage teachers to join me in the fight towards making Maths a likeable subject.

When people are asked to recall Maths in secondary school, most people say things like "I was bad at it" or "I was good at it", whereas when asked to recall another subject, most people say things like "it was boring" or "it was fun". For some reason, Maths is seen to be so much more about performance and ability than any other subject. And for Maths, perceived ability and enjoyment are very closely correlated. I think that Art is kind of similar in that ability is more of a factor than in other subjects, but for some reason, Art is still fun to do even if you're "bad" at it. Painting stuff is fun, even if the end product is kind of ugly. In Maths, people seem to believe there is only the end product. The only thing that matters in maths is getting the right answer, and hence getting the right grade. So there is not really anything to enjoy, unless you get all the answers right.

Solution: take the emphasis off "getting it right".

I was looking through some Primary school work belonging to one of my year 13 students, and I found this completely hideous drawing of what was apparently a monkey eating a banana. It looked like nothing. It was just crazy scribbles all over the page. And there in the corner, was a large, very prominent, tick. A tick as in, yes, this is correct. A tick as in an acknowledgement that this piece of work is perfectly acceptable. And that made me think: in art, you can tick something without saying that it is "correct" or "perfect", whereas in Maths, you can only tick something that is correct. If a student writes something like 2.3 + 4.5 = 6.7, I can't tick it. But it's only slightly wrong, and the student has done some good mathematical thought to get to that answer. They have understood place value (a tricky concept), they just counted wrong. So let's just eliminate ticks altogether. Let's use something else that basically means the same thing but doesn't have the same connotations of "correctness", like a smiley face perhaps. I can put a smiley face next to 6.7, even if I can't put a tick. And I can write them a note explaining that they miscounted but that they have understood place value and I'm proud of them for that.

During a whole-class question and answer session or discussion or review, let's not ask questions that have correct answers. Let's ask questions about methods and thinking and pattern spotting. Instead of asking, "What's 67.8 divided by 4?" let's ask, "How could you go about dividing 67.8 by 4?" and let's actually listen to the student's explanation, not just wait for the numerical answer. So often teachers will ask for the numerical answer first, then follow up with a "and how did you get that answer?" when it should be the other way round.

Let's not give year seven students a Maths test on their first week of secondary school and use this to put them into "ability" classes. Let's give them a "thinking styles" test instead - one that assesses the way they think about maths and their approach to solving problems. Then we can use this data to put them into classes instead (or at least let them think that's what the classes are based on, if you can't actually stomach doing this).

Let's teach our students that Maths is about more than just getting a correct answer. After all, we all have calculators and Wikipedia. Learning Maths needs to be about learning problem solving techniques, pattern spotting, making connections, and communicating all of these things with multiple representations. Let's forget about the notion of being "good at maths" or "bad at maths" and focus instead on everyone "doing maths".

And whether you agree with me or not doesn't matter because this debate has no correct answer :)

Emma x x x