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Maths - Put the brakes on

resources | Published in TES magazine on 10 February, 2012 | By: Jonny Griffiths

Sometimes ambitious children need to slow down

It is 4pm. My weary colleagues and I are slowly unwinding in the maths office, when there is a knock on the door.

"Could I have a quick word with Jonny, please?" says Michael in a bright, nervous voice. I don't sigh, but inwardly I think, "Is that my 'quick' or yours?"

Most of the aggravation in a teacher's life (not counting hassle from management and the government) arises from students who lack motivation. But there is another student who can be just as draining. I am thinking of the driven, obsessed student, the one who is likely to worry themself into a premature grave in advance of their exams. Michael is a case in point. Last year, he scored a high grade A on both his maths AS level and his further maths AS level. When the results for the first module of the A2 year arrived, he had once more scored an A.

"Pleased with your C3 score, Michael?" I asked.

"No," he said. "I only just got an A."

Now Michael is staying behind after college to seek my reassurance. "It's just that I keep making silly mistakes," he pleads. "I don't want to fail to get an A just through silly mistakes."

"But, Michael, we all make silly mistakes," I say.

"It's just that I know I can get an A, I've set my heart on it. I've started to cover the wall of my room with yellow Post-its ..."

I have a sudden vision of Michael's bedroom looking like an advert for Kraft cheese slices. I can stand no more.

"Apart from you, Michael, who cares what you get in your A level?" I ask, firmly.

His Bambi eyes look at me in a bewildered way, as if he has just seen me kick a puppy.

"I mean, I care, of course," I add, swiftly. "But what is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?"

Michael is too stunned to reply.

"Look, Michael," I say, gently. "The world is your oyster. University maths departments will be fighting over you. After that, employers will be. You are gold dust. Just enjoy being 17."

The next day, the further maths A2 group and I are tackling a piece of maths together.

Michael gives 2 as his answer.

"Shouldn't that be plus or minus 2?" says Charlotte.

She is right. I look at Michael. He jumps in a frightened way, but then a smile crosses his face.

Jonny Griffiths teaches at Paston College in Norfolk


For probability activities to engage and stretch the strongest mathematicians, try CIMT's "Probability of One" unit pack.

Inspire with DaveGale's guide to creative maths.

See Craig Barton's collection for more ideas to keep the gifted and talented occupied.

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3 average rating

Comment (9)

  • There's a lot of discussion on Twitter at the moment about whether this is meant to be a parody or not. Is it serious? I'd be delighted to know if it isn't.

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    13 February, 2012


  • Pretty sure it is serious but it certainly reads really badly and gives the impression that Jonny is irritated by his own students and has very low expectations. I think he was trying to say it is unhealthy for students to become fixated on their marks and they should try to relax and enjoy their studies in order to perform.

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    13 February, 2012


  • "But what is better: to go to Cambridge with three As and hate it or to go to Bangor with three Cs and love it?"
    What is best is to go to Cambridge with 3 as and to love it. But for that you need teachers who do not regard keen pupils as an inconvenience.
    What is worst is that the author appears to be proud of what he did for Michael.

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    13 February, 2012


  • Perhaps Michael realises that to get a proper degree from a proper university he's going to need not just one straight A but several. Otherwise, he might end up a sad, dead-beat loser like 'jonny' teaching basic numeracy to 'Meat One' (Tom Sharpe, Wilt).

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    13 February, 2012


  • As a former pupil of a (standard?!) comprehensive school, I'm incredibly grateful for those teachers who encouraged me to succeed. They undoubtedly helped me into a good career. I was the maths student who was disappointed when achieving less than 100% in a test. It is possible to follow that path without becoming a socially-inept geek (or so I'm told).

    Yes, I got the 4 As, and yes I was glad I went to Oxford to study Maths. And yes, I later became a member of the Maths Faculty. Bangor might have been nice, too; I don't know. I'm just glad that the only 'Johnny' I encountered was teaching English: I wasn't inclined to take him seriously back then, and nothing since has suggested to me that he was right.

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    Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    13 February, 2012


  • On behalf of all private school teachers, thank you Johnny for ensuring the continuing dominance of Public School educated individuals in all spheres of life in Britain.

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    13 February, 2012


  • I simply have no idea where to start with the comments above.

    Are they trolling, or do people really think like this?

    A professional with an obvious concern for the pupils in his care uses his judgement to attempt to relieve what he sees as counterproductive pressure that one of those pupils is putting on himself.

    He makes the point that success is measured in more than exam grades and a particular view of university.

    "I look at Michael. He jumps in a frightened way, but then a smile crosses his face."

    So a frightened young person who has somehow worked himself up into a state is spoken to in a compassionate way, it seems the pressure is relieved, and the young person is able to enjoy the maths again.

    And for this the teacher is criticised, almost attacked.

    I would be very glad to have the writer of this piece as the teacher of any of my own children. I hope someone else will support this.

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    13 February, 2012

    Archie Medes

  • I *think* I get what the article was *trying* to say: kids shouldn't drive themselves so hard to succeed they end up making themselves miserable. That's fair enough.

    Unfortunately the tone of the post completely fails, and appears to celebrate 'coasting'.

    It's one thing to say, "An A* isn't everything; you must absolutely do your best; but don't work yourself into an early grave."

    But it's wrong to say to an A-grade student, "It doesn't matter, a C-grade is just fine." That's a shocking squandering of potential.

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    14 February, 2012


  • My heart goes out to the thousands of bright students who suffer everyday in the hands of similar mediocre, left-wing teachers.

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    14 February, 2012


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