Maths teachers see students’ enjoyment of their subject as an added bonus, thought about only when they are sure that curriculum requirements are being met, according to new research.
Practical lessons are viewed by some as an enjoyable time-waster rather than an important way to enhance pupils’ understanding and motivation, says Karen Skilling of the University of Sydney.
Dr Skilling interviewed maths teachers from 10 secondary schools in a study presented at the British Educational Research Association conference, held in London last week.
The majority of teachers, she said, chose to give examples of the relevance of maths to real life as a way of engaging students. Teachers also talked about drawing on students’ personal interests as a way of making maths more relevant to them.
But many felt that fun, engaging maths lessons were distinct from classes in which pupils genuinely learned something. Often, the value of practical tasks was not considered important: they were simply there to allow pupils to enjoy themselves for a while.
“It was therefore unlikely that these strategies motivated students internally or long-term,” Dr Skelling said. “Several teachers perceived that teaching mathematics content and completing curriculum requirements was their main responsibility, even when they were aware that student understanding and engagement would be compromised.”
Some of the teachers interviewed said that whether or not their students enjoyed maths was beyond their control. Several blamed pupil boredom on primary schools, peer pressure, or parents who made their own dislike of the subject very clear.
“Teachers perceived these external factors as obstacles that would be difficult to overcome,” Dr Skelling said. “This appeared to…limit the efforts they made to promote sustained engagement.”
But Peter Ransom, of the Mathematical Association in the UK, insisted that fun and maths need not be mutually exclusive. “There is plenty of time to incorporate practical work into the mathematics classroom,” he said. “My pupils never seemed to suffer because of it. I think it helped develop their problem-solving and thinking skills so that the standard textbook work took less time.”
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