Talking Head

Headmaster's blog at Newcastle School for Boys

June 4, 2018

Mindset Maths

I always enjoy hearing about our boys’ progress and achievements in Maths and have been interested to speak with some of those who have sat their A level and GCSE papers recently.  Although an English graduate, I am married to a Maths teacher and having sat Maths at A level myself, I have a particular interest in the subject.

I’m not the only one.  The recent sitting of A level and GCSE Maths papers has stirred once again the debate over the purpose and content of the teaching of Maths in this country.

The Times Educational Supplement reported one of last week’s reformed GCSE Maths papers to be ‘ridiculously hard’.  Former education secretary, Lord Kenneth Baker, the man who originally introduced the GCSE back in 1988 as a qualification for those leaving school at 16, now advocates the division of GCSE Maths into separate components rather like the two English GCSEs: language and literature.

The ‘core’ would cover the basics and their everyday application – arithmetic progressing onto percentages, decimals and fractions; time, speed and distance; area and volume as well as money, loans, interest, wages, taxes, etc.

Where I have taught some of these latter ‘economic’ components as part of our personal, social and health education programme, they have been well received by boys eager to learn about their financial futures and how to optimise them.

Lord Baker goes on to propose a ‘further’ paper assessing algebra, geometry, trigonometry and calculus as branches of Maths that apply to some but not to all areas of business and which would presumably also provide the gateway for those going onto post-16 mathematical study.

Research conducted by the Maths Mission programme and published recently revealed ‘a notable disparity in how confident boys and girls are in their maths ability’ leading to the conclusion that boys are almost twice as likely as girls to call themselves a ‘natural’ at Maths.

In our boys’ school, Maths is a popular and successful subject not, I would suggest, because of mathematical patriarchy.  Labelling oneself a ‘natural’ can be as limiting as saying, ‘I can’t.’

So, putting perceptions about gender aside, Maths is a subject particularly beset by fixed mindset thinking.  It is a subject that many adults and children think and express that they either can or just can’t do.  This latest piece of research – at least in the way it has been reported –  seems to reinforce such a fixed mindset along gender lines.

Rather than more curriculum and examination change, perhaps our key challenge is to encourage children – boys and girls – and adults to adopt a more positive mindset to their mathematical learning.  I can learn and improve in Maths.