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Teaching maths like it matters

‘…but I’m never going to use Algebra in my life!’

The above, is a typical response from students across the country when walking into a Maths class.

I did not understand others’ disdain, because I love Maths. I got satisfaction from solving numerical problems, stimulation from equations, and excitement from learning new variables like alpha, or constants like Pi. The abstract nature of Maths was like art to me. Later, I realised that not all my peers felt the same way, that somehow, I was the anomaly, and that they were the norm.

Many maths teachers feel the same way. They get lost in the subject that they love and try to teach it in the way that makes sense to them, without thinking on how the lack of context in equations and processes means nothing to disengaged students.

As teachers, our job is to show how applicable Maths can be to our students on an individual basis. Rather than using real-life questions as extensions after the core activity, we must utilise them from the beginning when introducing topics, showing student’s how the methods that they learn can be applied to have some use beyond a pass mark in their exams.

I am not talking about examples of ladders leaning against walls when teaching Pythagoras’ theorem and SOHCAHTOA, or, taking counters from a bag, to explain Probability. The examples here are forced, no student will connect with them because they are not lived examples or likely scenarios in most of their lives.

We need to build strong relationships with our students, understand their demographic and interests, then introduce topics based on this. For example: If I know that my class enjoys football, I will begin with a video of Messi playing the game, pausing the video, and splitting the pitch up into segments, which can lead a conversation into areas of segments and circles, or, I can discuss the trajectory of the ball after a kick, to talk about quadratic equations. In another class, we can ask what students are budgeting for, perhaps concert tickets or new clothes, and use that to open a discussion into arithmetic series. Another great example is asking students to find an event happening somewhere in the country that they would like to go to, and as a class, plan for this. We would use research skills, calculate speed, distance and time if going by car, or pull up a train timetable where we can teach two-way tables and time conversions.

To create meaningful connections to Maths topics will take time, effort and research, and the difficulty will be that not every application will be relatable to every cohort. We will need to build a portfolio of contextual examples related to each topic, however, if there is buy-in from others in our departments, it is an achievable target.

In conclusion, we must teach Maths to students in meaningful ways that applies to their life, to keep up engagement and motivation as well as providing opportunities to deepen understanding. Maths should be based around conversation and interests, rather than an exercise of memorising and processes. It should make sense to students, it should matter.

Sara Altaf

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