Why teachers shouldn’t be pencil-pushers in maths

28th October 2016 at 01:00
Despite the ubiquity of growth mindset theory, schools still ban pens from maths lessons, giving the impression that mistakes are negative

I’ve frequently said to people that I’m really a middle school teacher trapped in a primary school deputy’s body. That’s not to say that I don’t love my work, or regret my role in primary, but rather that I have always felt just a little like an outsider.

I’m sure the same is true of many groups in schools: the early years practitioners who sit through meetings about the key stage 1 and 2 curriculum; the part-time music specialists trying to fathom how a maths data target could possibly fit into their appraisal cycle; and perhaps none more so than the supply teachers who never quite belong anywhere.

Some beliefs are almost universally held in primary schools – beliefs that I’ve never quite subscribed to, but which it seems almost sacrilegious to argue against

Some beliefs are almost universally held in primary schools – beliefs that I’ve never quite subscribed to, but which it seems almost sacrilegious to argue against. Over time, those things seem to have diminished: it’s no long considered completely evil to expect children to look after their own belongings in a simple pencil case. However, some views are still held firmly in primary schools.

It seems that pride in classroom displays still means that teachers spend a fortune from their own money, and something approaching half a school’s budget, on laminating pouches, all to ensure that no inch of wall space can be seen. Similarly, the suggestion that children are perhaps not best served by sitting in groups of four to six around common tables remains a surefire way of making oneself unpopular in a primary staffroom. But there’s one thing that sticks out as far as I’m concerned.

According to a little poll I did on Twitter recently, almost nine in 10 primaries insist that their pupils use a pencil for maths right up to Year 6. This has always struck me as odd, given that we also invest so much time in handwriting with pens and even inventing things like pen licences.

No exceptions to the rule

Nobody has yet persuaded me why maths should be the exception to this rule. Yes, there are lots of diagrams and graphs to be drawn, but aren’t there in science, too? Yes, some maths work is just jottings and notes, but surely the same is true when preparing to write a piece in English?

What really worries me is children’s understanding of the rule. In my experience, when you ask pupils why they use pencil in maths, they almost all give the same answer: to rub out mistakes. Yet any half-decent teacher knows that one of the most useful ways of identifying misconceptions and improving teaching and learning is looking at the mistakes that have been made.

When growth mindset gets a mention in almost every classroom, why would we persist in this practice that gives children the impression that mistakes might be a negative?

There’s one more argument on my side here, too: the national curriculum. Tucked away in the handwriting section of the English curriculum is a statement requiring that: “Pupils should be taught to write legibly, fluently and with increasing speed by choosing the writing implement that is best suited for a task.” Aside from using felt-tips for bubble writing on a sugar-paper poster, what better opportunity is there for teaching such a skill than careful discernment in a maths lesson?

Are you writing explanatory proofs of why the total of two odd numbers is always even? Then, just like in every other subject, the pen is your friend. Drawing a graph to show the falling temperature of a beaker of hot water? Then, here, the mighty pencil, with its pinpoint precision, is the man for the job. And it’s one of those few occasions where erasing your mistakes might be a good call.


Michael Tidd is deputy head at Edgewood Primary School in Nottinghamshire
@MichaelT1979

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