“Simple maths in complex situations rather than complex maths in simple situations”.
This is what National Numeracy Chief exec Mike Ellicock discussed on Radio 4’s Today programme recently. Real life, he was suggesting, doesn’t necessarily require the highly advanced knowledge of equations or coordinates that secondary schools teach us in preparation for our GCSEs. Perhaps then this is why having completed our exams seventeen million of us in the UK have reverted back to having only primary school level knowledge of overall maths in later life. The key to avoiding this, it seems, is to be able to use general skills more effectively and in a greater number of situations if we want to have a thorough platform on which to further progress our understanding of maths.
Not that this message was being fully understood by the interviewer, John Humphrys. Whether his “why do I need to do maths?” question was purely to further the piece or whether it was an indication of his own belief can be debated. The implication however was that this is the discourse that innovators such as Mike face when confronted with our current education system. That we supposedly need to demonstrate that the UK is able to perform well in comparable international tests and as such we need to implement teaching and learning strategies that prioritise the test as opposed to the skill we are supposed to be nurturing.
I can only imagine the frustration groups such as National Numeracy feel when it comes to dealing with intransigence on the level of this radio interview. As an advocate of gaming and education, this is an issue I fully empathise with since so often, games, phones, and computers are seen as distractions of irrelevancies to learning rather than the contextual learning platforms they are. I have been to many a classroom where teachers have bemoaned the “almighty tantrum” that a learner of theirs has had when the school has tried to take a phone from them whilst not accepting that this was because it contained all the learner’s presentation notes for the morning.
The key thing for both maths and tech is, for me, that both are most effective when they are context based. The National Numeracy charity suggests that the best way to implement this is to presume that the following three things are the only way to overcome our intrinsic conservatism with maths. My suggestion is that they can also be used to reconsider how we use tech in the classroom as well.
- Good data = Good decisions
If we are able to realise that we use statistical data, percentages, ratio and so forth when arranging a phone contract to preparing a meal we can see that the maths a) is more pervasive than the textbook context might suggest and b) doesn’t have to be scary; it can actually be helpful. Similarly, if the learners we work with are able to use technology to be able to find answers to the questions we might pose them, they are learning appropriate and numerous soft skill techniques that will benefit them when in professional work. By limiting access to such devices and approaches is counter-intuitive both in terms of increasing learner attainment and also learner confidence. Rather than denying the possibility of the tech at your disposal, have the learners show how they would demonstrate best and worst practise for using it for finding history resources for example. Offering purpose to any technology use invariably limits the potential for it distracting learners.
- Change the Can’t Do culture to Can’t Do Yet
I myself am guilty of resting on my laurels when it comes to my ‘acceptable’ levels of maths skills. However, there isn’t a gene that makes one of us better at it than someone else. It’s all just practise and the willingness to accept that mistakes aren’t an indicator of what we can never do, they are simply something we are working towards. Supporting each other through this development rather than simply assessing it is the only way this will work. As games show us, to ‘fail’ is to lose a life but that doesn’t mean we stop playing the game. We use our gained knowledge to inspire us to a different approach that will succeed on the next attempt. Similarly, if you have had a new piece of tech deployed in your classroom (a screen or IT system) don’t focus on what you can’t do with it but rather what you want to learn to do with it. The more advanced software doesn’t require a total grasp of the mechanisms (think of how all of us use Word but most of us probably only use around 10% of its functions) so focus only on what you want to do with it for now before expanding your skills as you go.
- Effort = Reward
It may seem obvious to say that talent is mostly perspiration rather than inspiration so taking time to develop your skills in maths or tech is crucial. It needn’t be boring or taxing however; play games to familiarise yourself with your tablet’s functionality, compare how many corners have been taken in a football game in relation to them winning, even count down the percentage of time left of your work day before you get to go home. Keep yourself engaged with little tasks and celebrate the little victories you achieve with something in order to acknowledge the progress you’re making. Use the tech in a way that allows you to show off a little bit more of your understanding than you had before. Use it to demonstrate ideas in meetings, allow learners a separate option for handing in work, or simply to deploy a more colourful version of a previous resource. The options are entirely yours but always keep trying to incorporate something new.
If you would like to learn more about what tech can do for you in helping you develop your maths skills (or how maths can even help your tech use) you can see the work I’m involved with on twitter at https://twitter.com/ianrmatt. My university work can be seen at www.bit.ly/phdbio. Always happy to discuss!