Through recent re-watching of “The History Boys” and “Dead Poet’s Society”, I came to realise that I am far too conservative in my approach to lesson planning and, more importantly, resource writing. The two films, for those that haven’t seen them, centre on eccentric History and English teachers who employ a teaching methodology inspired by argument and free thinking.
I wonder how often we, as maths educators, write a resource or ask a question with the answer we want in mind vs. not having anything but the beauty of the subject in mind. What happens in both of these films is that the teacher conveys a complete love of the subject – their faces light up when a pupil starts arguing about Hardy’s use of adjective, for example. I wonder whether that happens enough in our mathematics classrooms. Do the educators truly convey a passion for the subject? Do all your pupils really know that you love maths? This shouldn’t just come up when you talk about irrational numbers or proofs or the real top end of your interest but it should come up when talking about similar shapes and scatter graphs and everything else.
It is with this in mind that I have gone about writing my latest set of resources for next year’s Year 9. With Year 11 and two upper sixth form sets gone, I have some time this Summer term to really knuckle down and concentrate on creating a quality resource. I have taken our Scheme of Work and gone through the relevant things I have to cover before half term. This gives about 10 different areas to go through. The general pattern I am following is to have all the topics combined on each sheet and teach them all incrementally. To carry out this process, we write 10 different problem streams and then combine the questions as we see fit ensuring that things are not introduced too quickly nor too early.
What does all that have to do with arguing and promoting passion? Well, when putting together the sheets, I have tried to include at least one question where all the students in the class will have an opinion. This is not an easy goal and has truly had me thinking about the “low threshold, high ceiling” idea that Craig Barton (his rich maths tasks do this fantastically) first instilled in me. The brilliant thing about this will be that when the students are having their discussions from these questions, I can embrace it and I will be a part of it. I will just be another part of the discussion, hopefully a truly passionate part. With the questions included (for example, should we include 0 as a counting number?), I don’t know any more than a 14 year old, we can have a live discussion.
I also hope to achieve the dream goal of getting away from “is this right?” or “will this be in an exam?” by asking questions on each worksheet which are so obviously not examinable that the students can just try. Robin Williams in “Dead Poet’s Society” has a wonderful phrase whenever a students answers of “Thanks for playing!” and rings an imaginary bell. It doesn’t matter what the answer was, the positive feedback is for answering the question. This is the sort of thing that I hope will push the students to truly love the subject and it is nothing to do with the methods they learn or the numbers they meet. It is do with the subject itself and the history of maths and all the things that are constantly changing. For example, how would Deep Blue the Computer write “100” in comparison to Tutankhamun…which is more intuitive? Which is easier to understand? What problems are there with these number systems?
I encourage all to argue more and let your students discuss stuff. It might be complete rubbish but there will be one statement from one student that may just remind you why you love the subject so much. Here’s hoping!