Letters between teachers
My children suffer from a mathematics teacher as a parent: the school perhaps even more so, as its over-reliance on drill-and-practice as a way to teach mathematics doesn't go unchallenged.
The advent of Functional Skills in mathematics (FSM) gave me an opportunity last September to send in classroom activity suggestions to the mathematics department of our children’s school. I was keen to do so although my previous offerings had been ignored in their entirety: in contrast, FSM has to be taken seriously as it's in the KS4 curriculum (and linked to KS3 via National Strategies) and, perhaps most important of all, FSM terminates with an examination. From my point of view the sort of FSM preparation needed by school students, such as question modification, including adaptation to different contexts, is simply good practice – something students should be heavily involved in anyway – although the generalisation in FSM is about practical contexts rather than mathematics per se, in contrast to that promoted and exemplified in Prestage and Perks splendid book Adapting and Extending Secondary Mathematics Activities. I think excellent the precepts and exemplification in the document Resources to support the pilot of functional skills: Teaching and learning functional mathematics and was accordingly happy to promote the document to our two children's school.
I was, naturally, pleased to be contacted by the school and assured about the inclusion of thinking skills and use of rich tasks as a priority this year. As it turns out, since September our Y8 child has had but one lesson in which the class worked in groups – something for which I got some stick: “It's your fault”, she said, “I had to sit with people I didn't like and who didn't want to do anything.”
Eventually I wrote again to the school:
“I was pleased by your September email to see the inclusion of more varied approaches in the maths classroom, and a small amount of group work has indeed taken place in our daughter Jane's class, but I get the impression that although working IN a group, her teacher needed to develop further the skills of getting the students to work AS a group.”
Our older child had not experienced group work or investigational activity in mathematics until the advent of an inspector led to desks whipped round, for the occasion of an observation, into blocks of four and, from our child's account of it, an enjoyable exploratory lesson. One not be repeated, however, after the exit of the inspector: lessons then reverted to their former unremitting style.
I am not by nature negative, so when I report the anger expressed by my partner it is not to condemn the school: even the local private school is over-addicted to drill-and-practice, ‘rules without reason’ as I term it. My response as follows to the angry remark was more-or-less as I subsequently wrote to the school:
“In my experience, policy and schemes of work are insufficient to develop classroom practice: without departmental structures to support different ways of working only a few heroes and mavericks are able to develop and sustain unfamiliar ways of working in the classroom.
"It is a big step to move from the prevailing drill-and-practice or training approach, useful as it may be to develop skill fluency, to the use of small-group work and discussion in mathematics, tools to help learners understand mathematical concepts. I'm not absolutist here – I know that skill fluency alone can underpin understanding, but only for the few: for the many, skill fluency needs explicitly embedding within a context of reasoning, proof and practical activity. This implies provocative group work supported by teacher prompts, probes, and questions of a more-or-less open kind.”
Some would argue that the benefit of doing mathematics as a sense-making activity, rather than as the application of parroted rules, is improved GCSE or A Level results. Others, on the hand, believe that offering opportunities for learner engagement beyond mere routine is to enable students to participate passionately and imaginatively in that part of our culture in which problems are developed, solved and shared. Further, they believe that these opportunities are the right of all learners.