There’s a myth in education that we have bought into. It’s one formed from a million utterances of distaste and then validated by society with little mitigation: that it’s OK – normal, encouraged even – to turn our nose up at maths.
And it states that to counter this, to create a love for maths, we need to make maths less, well, maths-like. We need to water it down, jazz it up, put a disguise upon it. “Homeopathic maths” is probably the next edu-business readying itself as we speak ...
It doesn’t have to be this way. I have been banging my head against the wall of “making maths more creative” for 15 years (it’s a pretty wall, but it’s quite hard).
Anyone who has studied maths to a certain level, or read a few books about it, or seen brilliant people like Marcus du Sautoy or Katie Steckles or Francis Su talk about it, will tell you that maths is fascinating stuff just as it is. The problem with maths isn’t maths.
No, the real problem is: who is getting to see maths? It’s like the “wizard” behind the green curtain but without the anti-climactic reveal (quite the opposite). But few make it beyond the scary old man bellowing at them – or even just his reputation – to learn the truth. Why, particularly in schools, do we let this happen? And how do we fix it?
To begin that answer, indulge me a while: I want you to conduct a small experiment. Ask someone who you happen to know is good at maths whether they are a mathematician.
Done? My guess is that you will have received the same reply that I nearly always receive. I’ve tried this with a wonderful cross-section of people, from bricklayers to seven-year-olds to professors.
“No,” they answer, shrugging off the identity like a cloak far too splendid for the likes of them.
Why are we so reluctant to refer to ourselves a “mathematician” when we would quite happily label ourselves literate, an “avid reader” or a “writer”?
My theory is that it is partly the fault of us teachers. We are the gatekeepers and, almost certainly unintentionally, we are doing something that means people aren’t feeling welcome in our domain.
Our pupils (especially female ones, especially black, Asian and minority ethnic ones, especially disabled ones and LGBT ones) aren’t feeling welcome in our classrooms. Our potential colleagues aren’t feeling welcome to join us. The world at large isn’t feeling welcome to geek out with us about cool maths stuff, even while going crazy for Star Wars and fighting robots, and idolising astronauts and building Raspberry Pi machines.
I am as guilty as anyone. As a self-reported member of both the “mathematician” and “writer” camps, I can tell you which label I use when I’m out a-wooing.
I can tell you which one elicits coos of interest from children and impressed lip-presses from adults.
And yet, let’s take a look at the two terms. Writing has instinctive appeal, at least until we start waving around grammatical checklists and formulaic acronyms. It is exciting. It is about realising imaginary things into being. It’s something everyone at least wants to do; it’s such a dream for so many adults, it’s become a cliché that “everyone has a novel in them”.
And now look at maths. Really look at it. Don’t just look at what you think it is but what it actually is.
It is exactly the same as writing: it is realising imaginary things into being, it is exciting, it is something that, really, everyone wants to do, even if they believe they are not very good at it.
Because making Lego models is maths. Mixing paint is maths. Cutting holes in folded paper is maths. Drawing a picture of a relationship between two things; lining objects up by size; predicting how to throw things to make them go further; planning your time most efficiently; coding; categorising; combining; exploring; comparing; playing around with stuff at different levels of abstraction ... it’s all maths.
Leave maths alone
Is this what we tell our students? Do we sit them down and say, “What do you mean you don’t like maths? You are doing it every single day”?
No. Instead, we look at maths as if it has the problem. We believe it to be lacking. And so we strive to change maths. We strive to make it “more accessible”, “more practical” and “more creative”. We endlessly mess about under the hood when the engine is running just fine.
Up and down the country, maths teachers and math communicators and maths lecturers are being told to teach maths differently, to emphasise this or that aspect and minimise something else.
We hide things, we manipulate things, we dodge and swerve and plead. We desperately want maths to be something that it is not.
That’s a scandal. And what’s worse: it has not worked. Has it made substantial differences in how our subject is viewed by the general public? It has not.
So let’s leave maths alone for a minute. Let’s assume it’s doing OK, thanks, just as it is. And let’s instead look at what might actually make a difference.
A more diverse representation is where I would start. I’ve been to more maths conferences in the past two years than I have fingers (yes, readers, I can count beyond my own digits – all thanks to maths: hurrah!) and while some, although not all, have appeared to include a delightful and diverse cross-section of society, the speakers, keynoters and panellists are a different story.
Who are we lifting up in our profession? Who are the faces on our posters, in our textbooks, on our websites? Who has a voice, and much, much more importantly, who doesn’t? Who is contributing to, or blasting apart, our mental conception of a maths person?
As Henrion (1997) says: “Imagery not only reflects but affects who goes into mathematics ... imagery can become a kind of gatekeeper, a way of defining who is an insider and who is an outsider.”
I recently presented a session on this theme at a conference. Warning the audience that the session would be uncomfortable but important, I asked them, honestly, to think about what they considered a maths teacher to “look like” and why and how it might affect their decision-making.
What age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, level of disability do we “see” in our profession? How do we react when someone comes along who doesn’t fit our inner prototype? How are we encouraging a diverse range of our pupils to pursue maths and become our future colleagues? And if we’re not, who the hell is going to do it?
I heard some heartbreaking stories in response. Maths teachers were telling me that they had been made to feel unwelcome, like they didn’t fit in, that they weren’t part of our community – simply because of the way they looked or spoke or other social identity markers. And this was adults who had the confidence to just go ahead and damn well do it anyway.
How many haven’t made it past those barriers? I could weep for those people. I want to find them all and give them a hug and tell them they are welcome and to please come back because they are important, needed, valued.
Diversify to multiply
Our pupils both need and deserve to see a wide range of mathematicians in front of them, doing what they love and loving what they do.
This quote from Whoopi Goldberg always punches me right in the gut: “When I was nine years old, Star Trek came on. I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
It’s time we saw a more gloriously diverse range of mathematicians and maths teachers. Representation matters.
Beyond our classrooms, we who are “in” are constantly making decisions: looking at CVs, interviewing, choosing colleagues to collaborate with, mentoring, recommending for responsibility and promotion, recognising ideas and crediting them, supporting peers, giving advice.
No maths teacher is an island, and we all rely on others in many ways to help us have a successful and happy career – but it’s time to recognise that support is a privilege not afforded to everyone. “Privilege means you get second chances” is how Malcolm Gladwell put it, beautifully.
Oh and in case you hadn’t noticed, we have something of a shortage of qualified and enthusiastic maths teachers – yet here we are, effectively turning them away. And they say that mathematicians are supposed to be logical …
The second thing we need to do is to stop dressing up our subject as if it is lacking. We need to show it as it is. We need to refuse attempts to twist and reduce and dilute it into something it is not. We need to stand up for maths. More than that, we need to advocate for it as so many do for literacy.
And then I think we need to be brutally honest with ourselves. It is so tempting to say, “This is not me! I’m not doing this! It’s other people! #notallmathsteachers!”’ and stand apart from all the snobbery and the gatekeeping.
“My classroom,” we think to ourselves, “is totally inclusive. I’m not biased. I’m not ever telling pupils they can’t be a mathematician, or discriminating based on a fuzzy inner stereotype of what makes a good maths student …”
But the evidence says different. A few research results:
●When presented with recognisable boy/girl names on test papers, teachers awarded higher scores to boys (Lavy and Sand, 2015).
●Teachers tend to talk to boys more and interrupt girls more; to acknowledge girls but to praise and encourage boys; to reward deeper thought in boys but quiet and compliance in girls (Sadker and Littleman, 2009). Until they watched the videos back, the teachers in the study thought that they were being balanced.
Teachers favour boys over girls in maths at primary school and this affects successful completion of maths courses at secondary level (Lavy and Sand, 2015).
●Teachers’ overall judgements of pupils were higher if they were similar to them (Rausch et al, 2013).
●Pupil achievement strongly correlates to – and appears to some degree to be caused by – teacher expectation (Crano and Mellon, 1978).
●Teachers tend to have lower expectations of students of colour and those from disadvantaged backgrounds (Boser, Wilhelm and Hanna, 2014).
Imagine for a moment how these identities might intersect for a pupil. For example, what if you are a female student of colour, or a disabled student from a disadvantaged background?
Clearly, one thing that we can all be doing, as individuals, is carefully considering and combatting these biases.
We have the potential, here, to solve two problems at once: the reputation of our subject as elitist and boring (by portraying a wider range of activities in maths) and the shortage of good maths teachers (by encouraging a stronger pipeline of diverse mathematicians at every level from early years to teacher training and beyond).
These two things naturally intersect, too. We will end up with a colourful smorgasbord of quiet and loud, slow and fast, creative and logical, practical and theoretical, articulate and taciturn, extrovert and introvert mathematicians doing a huge range of mathematics and being visible when doing it.
With that, we can blow apart the fallacies that mathematics comes naturally to people, that the only value is in written mathematics, that mathematicians work alone, that a fast mathematician is a good mathematician, that mathematicians are white and male and neurotypical and heterosexual and non-disabled and, the most powerful and lingering of all, that there is something wrong with maths itself.
Lucy Rycroft Smith is a teacher and freelance writer, and the co-editor (with JL Dutaut) of Flip the System UK: a teachers’ manifesto. She tweets @honeypisquared