I love a leading and provocative title, but I have you reading so I will assuage all those Maths teachers nice and early that this is not an attack at all – indeed, it is quite the opposite – it is a robust defence of Maths and the teaching and learning of mathematics. You heard it right: ‘English teacher writes in defence of Maths‘. Now, as a Subject Leader of English, I am acutely conscious of the pressures faced by core subject teachers, in both English and Maths, and particularly those of the Subject Leaders of Maths. In many ways I recognise that it is not really a fair playing field. One key critical factor, which as a teacher of children (and not just English) irks me greatly, is that society most often supports and celebrates the majesty of reading and writing, but it openly scorns mathematical study – the weight of culture actually militates against the learning of mathematics.
The impact of cultural conditioning cannot be underestimated and the stigmatising power of language cuts deep and endures. I was brought up in a literate working class background, rich in reading and good humoured talk. Education was seen as a privilege and I was warmly supported in a loving climate. I am whole-heartedly thankful for brilliant and loving parents. One small failure on their part is that they “couldn’t do Maths”. This familiar refrain passed readily onto me and around about thirteen years of age (after I had been temporarily sparked by a brilliant Maths teacher, Mr Laing, who openly debated his early struggles with Maths, and his Damoclean conversion to becoming passionate about Maths). I pretty much stopped trying hard at Maths. I couldn’t see the benefits, I was happy to take the easy route, perpetuate the stereotypes passed onto me. Does this sound familiar?
The stigma of illiteracy is anathema for our society so we do something about it – we need to tackle innumeracy with the same sense of importance.There is a widespread societal acceptance that mathematics cannot be learnt easily, in fact, from many the notion that it cannot be learnt at all; not like those supposedly ‘natural‘ subjects like English, or Art, or PE. Of course, all of this is nonsense! As is the stereotype that those ‘blessed’ with mathematical skill are particular geniuses! From birth, children are indoctrinated with this closed system of thought, which of course becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Children become unwilling to put in the time and effort to develop the mastery, so the mastery, and the pleasure therein never comes. Anyone who has read Carole Dweck’s ‘Mindset‘ will be fully versed in the destructive power of such culturally vindicated language. Day after day, these negative representations wear away at the will of students like water hollowing out a stone.
As humans we are naturally averse to thinking, we seek this state so we can focus upon the important stuff, like danger and our primal needs for survival. This neatly explains why I prefer to snack on sweets and not tackle complex mathematical problems of an evening! So children, intelligent and wily creatures that they are, will do their damnedest to avoid the difficult thinking and challenges that attend learning in Maths lessons. I wrote recently about reading great, and challenging, literature, like Shakespeare, to enjoy what W B Yeats termed “the fascination of what’s difficult”. The same principals apply to Maths, only children are vindicated in their avoidance of tackling the subject by negative cultural language and stereotypes. See this great collection of clips from films for irrefutable evidence of a deep rooted cultural bias against mathematical study:
A great video via Dan Meyer showing you how ‘Hollywood Hates Maths!’
Now, this video is comic in its collective negativity, but how many students are turned against mathematics because of these less than subtle social messages? In ancient times, Plato and the Greeks viewed the study of mathematics as purifying the soul – nowadays it is depicted as a pursuit for unpopular geeks alone! Let’s remember that children suffer from tremendous social forces in their daily lives that impacts upon their behaviour and their habits; no more so then teens, who walk through a status and identity minefield everyday, acutely sensitive of their appearance to their peers. The ‘Maths geek‘ stereotype is more seriously damaging than it may first appear. How many countless children have been turned off from committing the hours and hours of deliberate practice needed to help our working memory fit to deal with challenging mathematical problems? It is ironically this crucial deliberate practice which eventually can render Maths ‘easy’, or even, dare I use the term ‘natural’!
Compare this with the cultural capital firing the English canon. Shakespeare has been rendered cool by DiCaprio; television shows of great novels are abound; tablet devices and eReaders are cool accessories to boost reading; poetry is aligned with music and more. We can draw upon politics, comedy, the media – the list goes on. Even as an English teacher I can draw inspiration from ‘The Dead Poets Society‘ (and I shamelessly do!) or ‘Dangerous Minds‘ (well, I plainly don’t!). Our study in English is reliant upon vocabulary recognition (see this excellent essay by E.D. Hirsch on the topic), which of course is bolstered by our wider culture; by talk with the family and by the myriad of texts that surround students in their daily lives. Much learning is tacit and implicit – we can simply draw upon that learning in English. Don’t get me wrong, reading is beset by challenges – again, these are outlined by Hirsch in the essay linked above – but many cultural benefits are in our favour too. We are the popular big brother to the ten stone Maths weakling!
What needs to happen is that the pervasive cultural narrative attached to mathematics needs to fundamentally shift. You may well quibble that that is a rather tall order for individuals without Rupert Murdoch-like media power…and you would be right. We can and should; however, do our best to change our local culture, the culture of our school, or family of schools, including feeder Primaries and more(this language sets the rot in early, like gender ‘appropriate’ toys the dye is cast quick). We must work from Primary level and even before to celebrate the rich pleasures to be found in number. We need to work with parents in highlighting to them the power of their language – a crash course in ‘growth mindset’ thinking – as well as actually dealing with the language we use (many a staff room would be littered with similar attitudes to mathematics based in my experience).
We can also illuminate how mathematics it is rooted in everything we do (perhaps school staff should read some books on the topic, like ‘The Undercover Economist‘ or ‘Alex’s Adventures in Numberland‘ to name just a couple). We need to articulate how it can make you eminently employable – wealth, status and power are for some reason very appealing to teenagers! We could even promote careers in ethical banking for example, god knows we need more of those! Effectively, we need many more mathematical role models who can articulate its value in a whole host of ways. Ultimately, we need to make mathematics real – we must draw away the veil of mystery from mathematical concepts and make mathematics relevant to everyday life. We must make it feel relevant beyond the four walls of the classroom and the exam hall. Hollywood, nor anybody else, is likely to do it for us.
George Sampson famously quoted, in 1921, “Every teacher in English is a teacher of English“. Perhaps we need to shift our school cultures to ensure that people think and talk with the notion that ‘every teacher in English is a teacher of Maths‘.
I’m no Maths expert; however, I have found these really interesting ideas that certainly got me thinking about inspiring the teaching and learning of mathematics:
http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_meyer_math_curriculum_makeover.html A great talk from DD Meyer, an American Maths teacher who provides a lively vision for mathematics in the classroom.
http://blog.mrmeyer.com/ The great blog of the aforementioned Meyer.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/video/2013/jan/22/algebra-mathematics-masterclass-video A great teaching master class on using mathematics to engage and inspire in a real way.
http://www.ted.com/talks/arthur_benjamin_s_formula_for_changing_math_education.html Another intriguing TED talk to spark thinking about re shaping the teaching and learning of mathematics.
http://maths4us.org/about/ This programme looks to tackle many of the issues outlined in my post.
In education today there are few topics that receive the unanimous support of all educators like the value conferred upon literacy and particularly the importance of reading. The evidence regarding how literacy can impact upon life chances is incontrovertible and the ‘riches’ provided by reading are very real: literally, in terms of average wages and career success; as well as emotionally, spiritually and cognitively. The inspirational trigger for my writing this blog post about the power of reading was this article here in the Telegraph about how reading great literature can spark the brain neurologically and have lasting physiological and psychological benefits.
When contemplating the nourishing benefits of reading I am saddened by evidence provided by the excellent National Literacy Trust that indicates that reading for pleasure appears to be in perennial decline. Evidence from the National Literacy Trust states that at the end of 2011 that only three young people in ten now read daily in their own time, down from five out of ten in 2005. Every Parents’ evening, particularly for our younger students, I explain the importance of reading for pleasure – how it has a tremendous impact upon school success, as well as its legion of unmeasurable benefits of course. I think the sourcing of accurate evidence to support this would be impossible to compile, but I am of the firm belief that those students who read for pleasure regularly over the period of their school life almost always excel compared to their non-reading peers. The very act of reading shows a habit of mind that is conducive to the concentration levels required of challenging work. Also, regular reading is often a sound indicator of those many nourishing home-life conditions, established from a young age, that are so crucial for success in later life.
As an English teacher, the potent power of reading great literature is something I have felt in a very real way and it shapes who I am. I can provide a series of accounts of how literature nourished and sustained me and how this same spark has been ignited in others. In my darker days as a truculent teen, I embarked upon a personal reading binge, which unknown to me then was something of a self-help course – my own pseudo-freudian self-analysis! The poetry and novels I read were directly an attempt at understanding myself and the turbulent maelstrom of teenage thoughts and feelings I was subject to at the time. In the characters of Holden Caulfield (‘The Catcher in the Rye’), Paul Morel (‘Sons and Lovers’) and Nick Carraway (‘The Great Gatsby’) I found kindred spirits – friends of a unique sort – that bolstered my confidence and sense of self, as good friends do. I have always been fascinated by that near-ineffable feeling of reaching though the page and through time to warmly greet such characters. The feeling articulated so precisely and plaintively by the teacher, Hector, in Alan Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”.
This moment described by Hector captures perfectly that potent “lighting up” of the brain, as described by the Scientists undertaking their study into the neurological effects of reading. Of course, this account of reading from Alan Bennett also describes the acute emotional benefits of reading – arguably the greatest gift conferred upon us from this simple act.
When I went to University, I was lucky enough to be tutored by the same Prof Phillip Davis who is the expert in the aforementioned Telegraph article. Seldom in my life have I come across a person so wise and so passionate about his vocation – and it was this very passion, regarding the nourishing power of reading, that gave me the conviction that I should pursue a career that promoted reading over other professional options, such as the sterile vacuum of a Human Resources department in some business or other. As proved by his scientific pursuit of answers, Dr Davis wanted to capture the ineffable power of reading; define why great literature, the type of literature that is challenging on a host of intellectual levels, could provide greater personal ballast than any shelf of trite self-help books ever could. The neurological evidence is that the brain indeed lights up when faced with such literature (challenging and difficult literature in the very best way) – such evidence that would feel like wholly predictable common sense to those, like me, who revel in that uplifting ‘spark’ of reading.
It made me remember two pivotal reading experiences in my life – two that have shaped so much of my intellectual and emotional life. Sparks that lit a flame. I assume there were many vague memories from earliest childhood that were the true foundations for my love of reading, likely involving my mother reading books, or reading newspapers with my father. Yet, these two later reading experiences crystallise for me the transformative power of reading.
My first experience that directly related to the research in the Telegraph article – it was in the seminar room of Dr Davis himself, reading T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’. I had always disliked Eliot’s poetry – backed by my favourite poet, Phillip Larkin – and had always thought his poetry elitist and obscure. This experience was guided by Dr Davis, who explained and helped illuminate the liturgical language, as we explored with laser-like precision the complex weaving of the language. It was the crucial ‘fascination of what’s difficult‘, to quote Yeats, that finally struck me quite profoundly. My brain, challenged by the obscurity of the language, was sparking new neural pathways – it illuminated new understanding that I felt in a very palpable way. Without wishing to sound like I had a ‘road to Damascus’ style conversion, of course I had loved challenging literature for some years, but the challenge of reading ‘The Four Quartets’, and the rich rewards I felt vert directly did indeed feel irrevocably different. I felt that I would want to guide others through similar challenges to the attendant rewards. When I now read the following words by Dr Davis from the article I see them as a rallying call for the reading of truly great literature:
“This is the argument for serious language in serious literature for serious human situations, instead of self-help books or the easy reads that merely reinforce predictable opinions and conventional self-images.” Professor Phillip Davis
The second experience helped changed my life and helped me find my vocation. It was one of those moments, too easily derided as corny and trite, when knew I wanted to be a teacher. I was leaving university and I had travailed the usual path of work experience in a Primary school and a Secondary school. I then had the opportunity to spend a fascinating week in a Special school in Liverpool. On the first day I had helped the shearing of sheep (I have not done that since!) – a real education indeed! On the second day a young boy was having an initial three day taster of the school. He had a significant series of special needs. His reading level was that of a an infant boy, far below his chronological age. We tackled one of those generic, basic reading books – about a boy leaving home to begin his life as an adult. The young lad really struggled to comprehend the reasoning for leaving home, nor could he fully grasp all the vocabulary, but, with lots of step by step scaffolding he got to the end of the book in little over half an hour. He was in raptures because he had finished the book and I was moved in a way I hadn’t experienced before.
The next day the young boy’s mother explained how delighted she was, after the first day, and how much her young boy had loved the reading time. I could hardly express how inwardly delighted I was. When I reflect now that process described in the Telegraph article as the “lighting up” of the brain was the same difficult reading experience the young boy and myself both experienced in our fashion – at very different times in our lives, with very different, but with equally challenging literature.
Triggered by these memories, I quickly activate my own “reappraisal mechanism”, as explained in the article, and remember that my job as a teacher is not just to tick a box labelled Literacy for OFSTED or just help students jump through ill-fitting examination hoops, but to help kindle a spark for reading. The rest will take care of itself. The next time I find a student questioning why we read Shakespeare I may well pull out a sparkler!
In the aforementioned ‘History Boys’, Hector implores the boys to “pass it on”. What is being passed on is a passion for knowledge and primarily a love of great literature. I hope that I may also have the continued gift of passing on that mighty spark for reading great literature.