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Five ways maths teachers can persuade secondary colleagues to embed numeracy

One director of maths offers his tips on getting secondary staff to meet the curriculum obligation to develop numeracy in every subject at secondary

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The most recent framework for the national curriculum in England (published in December 2014) makes clear that “teachers should develop pupils’ numeracy and mathematical reasoning in all subjects so that they understand and appreciate mathematics”.

Despite this, numeracy often plays second fiddle to literacy when looking at development across the curriculum; probably because teachers, like society as a whole, tend to view literacy and numeracy very differently.

I have heard (non-maths) teachers uttering those bone-chilling words, “I am rubbish at maths,” and have no sense of guilt or shame about it. No teacher, however, is going to say the same thing about literacy.

It may partly be down to the fact that all teachers use literacy all the time, to write explanations, provide feedback and in most other aspects of their job. For many teachers, the addition of numeracy in a lesson seems like a bit of a "bolt-on"; something that they have to shoe-horn in so that they can tick a box.

Ideally, the aim would be suitable development work with the staff in a school to allow them to see that mathematics can enhance and deepen pupils’ experience and understanding of their own subject, and to support them in making that happen. This would be revisited regularly by all departments supported by maths specialists to ensure that approaches are current and that pupils are linking their learning across subjects. But this would naturally take significant investment on behalf of the school, and not many schools – in my experience – have the time/finances to invest to this level in developing numeracy.

Instead, there are simple things that can be done to improve pupils’ experience of mathematics in other subjects and to begin to help them see the connections between their studies across the curriculum.

1. Share resources with other departments

Come across a nice bit of data that links to another subject? Send it to them. Found a nice image that has both artistic and mathematical merit? Pass it on to your art department. Using scientific formulae on a worksheet? Send it to your science department. The more pupils are seeing the same stimuli across multiple areas, the more they will link those areas together. Helping teachers in other departments out by doing part of their planning for them is a great way to begin to influence their practice. And while you are at it…

2. Borrow resources from other departments

In the same way as you can push your resources into other departments, if you can access them you can borrow their resources for your own lessons. A nice pie chart about GDP in the developing world? Take it. Your design and technology department has something good for technical drawing? Take it. Science has some fake (or real) experimental results that they use to teach with? Take them. Even if the questions you want to ask about the stimulus are not the same as the ones that the other subjects will, the fact that they are around the same stimulus will be apparent to pupils. They will start talking about how they “saw that in geography” and so start to take the first steps towards applying mathematical understanding across the curriculum. And as well as resources…

3. Learn subject language from other subjects

Did you know that orthographic drawing in D&T is the same as plans and elevations in mathematics? That the vanishing point in a perspective picture is akin to the centre of enlargement that links two similar shapes? That what we call a scatter graph in maths is actually called a line graph in science? Beginning to create a shared vocabulary can be an important step in creating links with other departments, and that can start in your classroom if you don’t have the capacity to spread the message more widely. When teaching topics which impact other subjects, see if you can highlight the common (or in the case of line/scatter graphs, different) language between the areas and soon your pupils will begin to move more confidently between the same ideas in different subjects. And it isn’t just language…

4. Bring other departments' equipment into the maths classroom

There is plenty of great maths that can be done by borrowing equipment from other departments and bringing it into the maths classroom. Talking about volume? Find the volume of objects by immersing them in water, and measuring the displacement using a measuring jug. Borrow technical drawing equipment from D&T and use it for constructions and loci. I had one colleague who introduced the study of density in maths by looking at whether objects would float or sink. Art materials for symmetry, bring in balance scales for solving equations, recipe books from food tech, anything that can tie learning in maths to learning in other subjects, and so begin to provide pupils with a holistic view of the curriculum.

5. Highlight and promote the non-subject specific

While there are plenty of mathematical ideas that are encountered in very particular subjects, there are others that can be useful across all areas. Information organising tools like Venn diagrams, Carroll diagrams, etc, can be used in pretty much every subject across the curriculum and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come up with examples you can promote throughout the school. Timelines, which we use in maths to calculate with time, can be used in virtually any area to track the development of a topic or to show key events chronologically. If pupils are organising information in similar ways across multiple subjects, and then linking those same diagrams to concepts like probability, time calculation, etc, in maths, this is surely a good first step in pupils connecting the mathematics they learn with the other subjects they study.

I am aware that a lot of this article is less about mathematics appearing in other subjects and more about other subjects being linked with maths within the maths classroom, but you have to start somewhere…

Peter Mattock is director of maths and numeracy at Brockington College in Leicestershire

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