Choosing a spirited approach

15th March 1996 at 00:00
A group of teachers believe they have found a way to encourage both the mathematical and moral development of pupils, says John Westwell of The Charis Project

Spiritual development through maths! What do you mean, and how is it possible?" This has often been the reaction of people when we have discuss our work.

The Charis Project was established in 1994 to produce resources which would help teachers of English, modern languages and maths promote the moral and spiritual development of their pupils.

For the first phase of the project, the maths team wrote nine units of work for GCSE work. Resources include student sheets which can be photocopied and used alongside existing key stage 4 materials. Each unit contains teacher's notes which detail the learning objectives, gives background information and suggests how the resource could be used. The units, which last between one-and-a-half and three hours, were given a trial last autumn and will be published as a pack this summer.

So how can maths teachers address spiritual development in the classroom? We have found three approaches helpful, each rooted in the nature of mathematics itself. Maths has always been developed and applied in response to a diverse range of human situations and much material already reflects this. However, what we feel is new in the first of our three approaches, is the choice of contexts. By choosing an issue carefully, we can enable pupils to learn mathematics, while at the same time reflecting on "human issues".

For example, one unit uses the 1991 census as a context. Pupils are encouraged to consider the relative significance of people in society and the problem of people who go missing, as well as working on numbering and handling data.

The field of finance has always been a major application of mathematics, so another unit addresses charitable giving and another the work of Oxfam, encouraging reflection on our use of money and our underlying values. We believe such contexts offer an important contrast to the consumer focus of many existing resources.

One way to assess our spiritual development is by considering the readiness with which we address fundamental issues. A unit on mortality statistics allows pupils to develop skills in applying probability, while encouraging them to consider their own mortality and responses to the subject of death.

The history of mathematics offers examples of people who, through studying ideas within the subject, have also gained insight into other fields of knowledge. This offered us a starting point for a second approach to developing materials.

The unit on truth explores a series of statements about prime numbers. Pupils investigate the validity of the statements and also consider how they can verify or disprove them. They are encouraged to see if approaches used in maths can also be applied to non-mathematical statements. The aim is that pupils will reflect on how they come to accept things as true and how much they value finding truth.

Another unit introduces the ideas of averages and norms and encourages pupils to question how they respond to people who "deviate" from the normal.

Mathematics has been used powerfully to model and understand the world in which we live and this led us into our third approach. For example, one unit offers an introduction to fractals. Through constructing fractal images pupils learn some of their properties and, at the same time, are encouraged to see that fractals, fascinating in their own right, still only offer a limited model of an even more stimulating world. By linking the model back to the real world, pupils will hopefully develop an increasing sense of wonder.

We recognise that using resources of this kind may require quite a shift in methods for some maths teachers who may even be suspicious that this is just "religion" by another name. OFSTED's 1994 discussion paper in this field recognised the problem, saying: "To move to such a place where subjects see themselves in this way might seem to require a sea-change in attitudes and approaches, but certainly the potential is there."

There is also the need to develop new techniques for the classroom. Finding ways to help pupils reflect on ideas, discuss opinions and express beliefs is crucial to supporting their personal development. Maths teachers will vary in how confident they are working in this way but much can be learnt from colleagues in other subjects for whom such techniques will be more familiar.

Finally, we should consider the response of pupils to this new approach. For some it may seem like a refreshing change, for others, initially, it may be an unwelcome intrusion into their serious study. However, if pupils are growing in self-awareness and can more confidently express their own beliefs; if they are listening to and learning from others, and if they are becoming increasingly aware of the role of mathematics in making sense of life and the world, then surely we will welcome mathematics going spiritual.

For details of the Charis resources tel: Dr John Shortt, 0115 939 6270 or write to The Charis Project, Stapleford House Education Centre, Wesley Place, Stapleford, Nottingham, NG9 8DP

John Westwell is head of mathematics at Rainsford High School, Chelmsford

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