What’s the best way to teach Maths

I was very good in Maths back in high school – I was one of the best there. I wasn’t as good at university – just a tad above average; there are some truly clever people out there (but I digress). It’s not clear to me now whether I enjoyed Maths because I was good at it or that I was good at it because I enjoyed it. I did well, too, I think because I persevered with practice – lots of pencil-pushing, especially in Algebra – my favourite maths strand. The closest we got to technology was a scientific calculator!

As a teacher now, I cannot even imagine teaching the way I was taught….certainly not for every lesson. I’d like to say that it’s because I want to be a good teacher and engage my students, blah, blah blah. There is that, of course. But also, I get bored and a bored teacher is seriously bad news. Just as much as a teacher’s passion is infectious, so too is boredom.

Variety is key for me. Undoubtedly, access to technology makes this easier for me. Even if technology is not physically present in the classroom every lesson, quite often my ideas  have been ‘harvested’ from the web, and increasingly from my PLN via Twitter.  The amount of time I spend trawling the web for ideas is quite significant and that includes following the leads from my PLN. The more I explore, the more ideas open up and ultimately it’s the lack of time that stops me dead on my tracks.

Today, I had a review session with my year 8 class. A recent assessment revealed that many students really haven’t understood key concepts I have taught.  I found it interesting, however, that they got the Extension topic – the one I did using the Vitruvian Man (see previous post).  When I can, I do try to teach mathematical concepts within a given context – make it real so-to-speak – and usually, the class is engaged. I realised today that engagement in the classroom is not enough. Not for maths.  (Yes, I give and check homework). I suggested that perhaps I should teach by the book, i.e. have more time doing pencil-pushing work. There was a rather loud and unanimous, “No!”

When a student deemed below average in Maths can enjoy Maths, surely that’s a good thing, right?

Another problem is that it would seem that my students struggle with transferrability. That is, they struggle to apply what they learned in a different context. So, it’s not that they didn’t really learn but that they can’t apply it in an unfamiliar context. For example, we can talk about Percentage Composition in the context of polls but they struggle with using the same skill with just plain numbers (“out-of-context”).

For now, I’m not sure which way to go.

Do I teach the way I was taught or teach the way I was taught to teach, i.e. emphasis on the learning processes and the learners themselves?

All advice welcome. I don’t promise to follow but I promise to listen!

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7 thoughts on “What’s the best way to teach Maths

  1. Martin Pluss says:

    Hi Malyn,

    Like this post – the reflection you do is solid and reflects the thinking one goes through as their teaching evolves.

    I have popped your post to a mate in Bowral who is also a maths teacher @bernardcourt on Twitter.

    cheers Martin

  2. malyn says:

    Thanks Martin for your comment and another lead. I’ll look him up on Twitter.

    In fact, thanks, too, for encouraging me to build my PLN in Twitter. As mentioned above, I’m really getting a lot of benefits from it.

  3. Bernard Court says:

    Hi Malyn,
    I like your post. I’ve been following a few teachers on twitter for 6 – 9 months now and have learned a lot. I’ll add you to people I follow. I think you’re a bit more advanced than me down the PLN path. I’m just starting to think about a blog. I’m on leave at the moment but I pass on a lot of stuff I find to colleagues. I’m encouraging them to try things out but I haven’t had the chance! I’m going to RSS your blog too and read back on some of the stuff you’ve tried. I’ll pass on anything I find to you.
    Keep it coming,

  4. malyn says:

    Thanks for the encouragement and I promise to keep posting. I find it good practice for (at least) 3 reasons:
    1 – “forces” me to reflect on my practice
    2 – documents what I’ve done which allows for reuse
    3 – opens doors esp for collegiality

    If you’re still not sold on the idea, all I can say is, try it.

  5. Gail P says:

    Found this post through my Twitter connection @billgx who recognized the great reflection going on here. The process of reflection makes you a better teacher. The next step after reflection can be a scary one as to take an altered path down the road of personal development as a teacher. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You and your students stumble for a bit on the new terrain. If the choice to make a change means you are a better teacher (students are learning,) then great. If not then choose a new path or reconnect with the old one with some clearer thinking. All of you journey will make you a better teacher because you are learning and reflecting along the way. Of course in some school districts, if your students can’t succeed on the standardized tests then you will be fired. No one will want to hear about you reflections because the numbers do all the talking there 🙁

  6. malyn says:

    Dear Gail,

    Thanks for dropping by (and thanks to @billgx, too).

    I have no doubt that regardless of what I think about standardised testing, it is a fact, i.e. I cannot deny its existence. This is what creates the dilemma, in the first place. We want to extract the best ‘results’ we can from every student. That means covering all topics so no one misses out. That means teaching to the test, at least sometimes. That means students see where they sit in the bell curve. That means that sometimes, they get judged by a test they took one day. That means a lot of other things.

    I learn pretty quickly and I view mistakes as opportunity to learn. I take risks with my learning – and teaching – and have had some inspiring results, as well as the opposite, of course. I’m an evolving teacher and you are right – my students are on the same journey.

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