'Am I teaching to the test, against my principles?'

This teacher entered the profession to share his love of maths – but he finds his teaching limited by exam content


One maths teacher explains how he has gradually been forced to teach to the test

Suppose my head of department were to ask me the following question: “Is it better to teach for understanding, or to teach to the test?” I would answer, with some indignation, that – while it is not a binary choice – I would always opt for the former. 

What keeps me awake at night is the knowledge that sometimes I sacrifice my principles. The exact same principles I would defend so passionately if questioned by my head of department.

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I entered the teaching profession keen to share my passion for mathematics. But I lacked the necessary skills, or even an idea of what good mathematics teaching looked like, given what I had experienced as a student. 

My passion for teaching was eroded

My passion was eroded until gradually, and almost without realising, I would find myself saying: “And this is not how it will look on the GCSE – it will look like this,” or “In your GCSE, make sure you write this,” or “You don’t need to know this bit, so I won’t teach it,” or worse: “We won’t look at how this develops as it’s not currently in the exam specification.”

I used to justify my approach early in my career as: “I’ll get these students a C by drilling them on methods, and at least I’m setting them up for the real world with a decent maths grade for their CV or job applications.” 

Only now, in my sixth year of teaching, am I beginning to understand and visualise (but by no means master) the necessary pedagogical approaches for developing proper mathematical insight.

When planning a sequence of lessons, I always set out to achieve proper understanding of a concept. What I am faced with as a teacher is a system that constantly seeks to undermine this. The greatest obstruction to developing understanding is time. Deep understanding, achieved as a result of an intensive process, takes a great deal of time to orchestrate. Teaching 21 periods a week, along with all the admin and data requirements, seriously tests this commitment to developing understanding. 

Uncomfortable balance

Another barrier to developing understanding manifests itself in my students’ preconceptions of mathematics: “Sir, can you just get on with it?" "What’s the minimum I need to remember?” If this (horrifying) view of mathematics has been left to fester through key stage 2 and key stage 3, how can I change it – even with all the will in the world – in four hours a week at key stage 4?

I regularly find myself having to strike an uncomfortable balance between teaching for understanding and securing nationally recognised outcomes for my students. Are the two mutually exclusive? I will spend the rest of my career as a teacher trying to find the answer. 

The author is a secondary maths teacher

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