Famous figures

2nd May 2003 at 01:00
Wendy Fortescue-Hubbard

Q) I would like to incorporate some history of maths into a lesson for my bright Year 6 pupils. Have you any suggestions for topics and where I could research them?

A) There is the encouragement in the national curriculum to "promote pupils' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development through mathematics".

Given this, you would expect there to be plenty of resources for teachers to draw on but finding them is much harder than you might think. Here are a few suggestions to get you started: Have a look at the website of the British Society for the History of Mathematics (BSHM) www.dcs.warwick.ac.ukbshm. You will find links to sites on the history of maths. You might even wish to join the BSHM and attend their meetings.

Look out for articles in journals such as Mathematics in School (Mathematical Association www.m-a.org.uk) and Teaching Mathematics (Association of Teachers of Mathematics www.atm.org.uk).

Mathematics in School had special history of maths issues in September 1998 and January this year, back copies of which can be obtained from the MA.

Many publishers of classroom resources (for example QED) stocks posters and other materials which are worth looking out for. I was also impressed by a book by Steve Humble called The Experimenter's A-Z of Mathematics (David Fulton, pound;17). This has maths activities with computer support (CD-Rom included). The history is included with the experiments. The level is secondary but some of the experiments could be adapted for bright Year 6s.

The one I like best is Buffon's breadsticks, about probability. The French naturalist George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) is known for his work on probability and calculus. In one experiment Buffon threw breadsticks on to the ground, counting the number of loaves that touched or crossed lines on the floor. This event created a new theory which gave a means of estimating pi.

Create a grid of 12 (3 x 4) 9cm squares on A3 paper. Throw cocktail sticks on to the grid and record the number of throws and the number of times the stick lies on the line. The formula for calculating the probability that the stick will intersect the line where L is the length of the stick and a is the length of the side of the square is given by: For any square grid and size stick an estimate for pi can be found using the rearranged formula below: Look out for opportunities to make children aware of people in history who worked on the maths you might use in class. For example, in primary school, you could mention Gauss or Fibonacci; in secondary, Pascal or Pythagoras; and in the sixth-form, Newton or Euclid.

Q) I am a PGCE student. I have a degree in maths but teaching is much more challenging than I ever thought it would be. After I have taught something I find myself thinking "Don't say you don't understand", as I can't explain it any other way. I feel that as a maths specialist I should be better at teaching maths than a non-specialist.

A) Teaching practice is just what it says, practising your teaching skills.

This is your chance to try things out. Use different approaches with your pupils. Try out ideas and techniques on your fellow students, friends and family.

Maths is a conversation. If they don't understand something you have taught, discuss it with them: at what stage did they get lost? Was the language you used OK? Try to teach the same topic in a number of different ways.

Teachers never stop learning about teaching. As we become more experienced we become more skilled and, most importantly, more confident. Don't think that because you are the maths specialist you should be better at teaching the subject. It is not always the case, although it is much harder to admit a mistake or say you aren't clear about something if you are the expert.

If you are not certain of a particular point or are not sure how best to put it across, don't be afraid to say so. Say you will look into it rather than teach them something that is incorrect or confusing. I know many non-specialists who make brilliant maths teachers, as they often understand more quickly why a student is having difficulty learning something.

Wendy Fortescue-Hubbard is a teacher and game inventor. She has been awarded a three-year fellowship by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) to spread maths to the masses, www.nesta.org.uk Email your questions to Mathagony Aunt at teacher@tes.co.ukOr write to TES Teacher, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX

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