Let's talk about you and me

17th March 1995 at 00:00
James Williams says it's time scientists and mathematicians got together to experience each other's methods of teaching maths and identify common needs

Haven't you done that in maths yet?" I wonder how many times a science teacher has been caught with that phrase on their lips when hurriedly checking what has or has not been covered with their maths counterparts.

The extreme pressure that was brought on by the overcrowded national curriculum and the several major revisions that we have had to cope with has not left time for many schools to communicate their ideas and develop effective cross-curricular links between the two subjects.

Apart from the practicalities of coming to grips with your own subject area revisions, how many people have been able to keep up with the revisions in another area? There has been intense debate over the science and maths orders and the need to ensure that they deliver what is wanted. But, deliver what, to whom and for whom?

The "to whom" is easy: the pupils. But, as a head of science I have a particular view on "what" needs to be delivered. I could be controversial and state that really I consider mathematics as a service subject and it should be there to service the sciences. Pupils should be taught the skills that we, as scientists, want them to have. I would not dare to do this. Mathematics is not a service subject to science any more than science is a service subject to technology. The problem that we have to overcome is the context in which the mathematics is taught and how that mathematics is to be used in science.

The transference of skills from maths to science is often poor. As I read through the new maths order, I realise that a lot of the skills I would like my pupils to have should be taught - transformation of formulae, graphing skills, basic statistics, estimation. Where I believe we are falling down is in helping pupils to see the uses for the skills they acquire in maths in new and different contexts, in particular in science. This is an essential role of education. Our job is to see that it takes place.

The new maths order do give us mathematics for science in the same way as the science order also equips pupils with skills that they could use, say, in technology. I believe we have seen our role in education change over the past 10 years from being teachers to "learning facilitators". We help children to learn and show them how the skills that they learn can and should be applied to different situations.

The key to the transference of skills from mathematics to science is in the way in which those two curriculum areas interact. As scientists we must get away from thinking that maths is still theorems, proofs and repetitive tasks in formula rearrangement, drawing triangles and calculating angles and recognise that the maths now requires pupils to use numbers and recognise number patterns, handle data, perform algebra in a meaningful way and use and apply mathematics. If anything these skills should be of more use to us than the rote learning of theorems and proofs of theorems of the past.

A lot of fuss is also made of the need for basic skills in maths, such as the learning of the times tables. I would fully agree with this if only for the help that this gives when estimating and approximating results. I am, however, constantly amazed by the lack of ability in people to do this.

Here I speak from experience of teaching maths and statistics to bankers for the Institute of Bankers. Young people in their fist job in banking often embark on professional exams, relying totally on calculators, their powers of mental arithmetic very limited. They are so limited that even when the calculator throws out a wild answer to a problem (almost always because they hit the wrong button) they trust that answer, even to the point of doubting me.

I have since noticed a similar, but not as pronounced effect in my science students, not just with calculators but also with the digital technology that we use in science - ammeters, voltmeters, thermometers. The effect may not be so pronounced today because pupils are better at using calculators and do not hit the wrong button as often perhaps. The implication of this reliance on these instruments is that digital equals accurate and correct. But, as we know, it isn't always so.

So, I return to the basic problem we have: the transference of skills between science and mathematics. What can be done in the period of calm that we now have post Dearing to solve this problem? Like most teachers I am just beginning to take on board the latest set of revisions, but my plan includes an induction course for those students who wish to take science A-levels. The course will assess their ability in maths (all students should have grade A-C maths anyway) and standardise their maths specifically for science. A second plan is to work closely with the maths faculty, talk to each other and acquaint each other with the sort of work that we are doing across the whole school. I hope that we will be able to swap schemes of work and read each other's new orders to identify common needs.

So, in what practical ways can the two subjects help each other?

o Scientists and mathematicians need to get together and experience each other's methods of teaching maths. Scientists need to become familiar with the current terminology used with pupils. For example do pupils divide numbers or share them today.

o If in-service training time can be found, swap teaching methods and come to a consensus over how to teach certain operations.

o Agree when it is and when it is not appropriate to use calculators and or mental arithmetic.

o Swap data with each other so that mathematics can use science examples and contexts in their teaching. The area that jumps out at me here is maths attainment target 1, using and applying mathematics. Science could supply some of the real life problems that pupils have to investigate.

There is a lot in the new mathematics order that I can see will be useful to me as a science teacher. All we need to do now is talk and make sure that the pupils what they should know.

James Williams is head of the science faculty at the Beacon School, Banstead, Surrey

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