Mathematics and other rants

(Americans – I’m British. I say Maths, not Math. Just for the sake of this article, please deal with my Britishness)

I saw this article on the news yesterday:

Poor numeracy ‘blights the economy and ruins lives’

I work in the UK as a teacher of Adult basic skills for Literacy and Numeracy.

What this means, in practice, is that I go into the work place and do one-to-one or small group sessions for people during the working day to help them learn how to read, write, spell correctly, use punctuation and grammar, add up, subtract, multiply, divide, use decimal points and calculate using simple processes and mathematical constructs such as ratio, percentages, fractions and decimals. We also look at shape and space, graphs and metric measurements.

In 6 months I can raise someone’s attainment level from Entry Level to Level 1 in both subjects, with a 1 hour lesson every 2-3 weeks. In another six months I can raise their attainment from Level 1 to Level 2, with the same 1 hour lesson every 2-3 weeks.

Level 2 is the equivalent of A-C grade attainment at GCSE. For Americans, that’s roughly the equivalent of a 3.0 GPA at the end of Sophmore Year at High School (or so I have been told). In the UK, our children leave compulsory education at 16 at the moment, although this is in the process of being raised to 17 and then 18.

Our government has just announced the end of funding for Basic Skills adult numeracy and literacy. So the courses I teach will no longer be free, or indeed available through most examination boards. The courses that are going to replace them require 6 times as much contact time. At present I can teach one level in both literacy and numeracy with as little as 11 contact hours. The new courses will require as a bare minimum for the course to be valid 36 contact hours. Per subject. That’s 72 hours. Almost 7 times as many lessons.

This model will not be viable for the workplace. People do not want to take that much time out of their work. Staffing levels are already being cut in most places and people are stretched to the max already without losing someone from their staff ratio to sit and do lessons for an hour.

And I am left in despair.

I have mentioned before some of the reasons why I love my job so much. I have blogged about it in the past. But I would like to say more. About how I teach, why it works, how it overcomes some of the ingrained issues that our nation has when t comes to maths and why the government is making a big mistake by removing this model of teaching from its funding remit.

There are several myths about mathematics especially, which I have traced back to various roots during my time as an adult teacher. Let’s start with the most common:

* You don’t need maths to survive

Ah yes, the last bastion of the beligerent and desperate. Let’s think about this for a moment. How do the maths constructs that I am using relate to every day life.

You want to be able to manage your money and work out your wages, taxes, budgets and interest and check that your spreadsheets for all of those make sense? Then you need to understand decimals and percentages, and to be able to combine skills for addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. Money is a decimal. You use it every single day. Try telling me you don’t need the basic skills to do that.

You want to work out the special offers in the shops? You need to understand how percentages work. You want to work out what the interest is on loans, mortgages, etc? You DEFINITELY need to know how percentages work!

You want to work out how far your food will stretch and how much it will cost you to cater a birthday party for your child or a function at the office? You need fractions. (As a side note, fractions is the aspect of maths that I hate, and so I use decimals and percentages instead. But I know how to convert them and work around that, so that is another skill that I teach…)

You want to work out your basic rate and overtime pay? Or do you have a mileage claim with two different levels of repayment? Or perhaps you are in charge of the pay rosta where you work? You need to understand basic formulae.

You want to work out how many staff you need on rota in your school or nursing home to cover the legal minimums of staff to client cover? Or how much bleach to use in your cleaning mix? Or how much screenwash to water for your car? Or even how much squash to put in your kids’ drinks? You need to understand ratio, how it works and how to calculate using it.

Yeah you could buy it premixed. But I bet you it’s more expensive. Oh, but you’d need fractions and percentages to check that wouldn’t you… Silly me…

You want to know how many packs of bathroom tiles to buy? Or how much carpet you need? Or how much skirting board you need? Or how much paint you have to buy to repaint your house? Or how much guttering you need to fix that hole? Perhaps you just want to make sure you weren’t overcharged for those things by the guys who came to measure and decorate your house. Bring on the need for understanding perimeter, area and volume.

If you work in any sort of office job or sales job, or if you run your own business, I guarantee you will need to know how to read and construct bar charts, pie charts and line graphs. You’ll also need to know the difference between mean, mode, median and range to forecast your outgoings and income, analyse your stock trends and figure out the needs of your market.

Are we getting it yet?

What I teach isn’t trigonometry. Or advanced calculus. Or Pythagoras’ Theorem. It covers every day skills to help people get on in life without feeling like they have to pay someone to do their mathematical thinking for them. Yes you might have a calculator or a spreadsheet. It will not help you at all if you don’t know what order to press the buttons in or what to type in the little boxes to make those formulae work (hey, we’re back to formulae again, maybe we do need algebra…)

* I just couldn’t do maths at school, my teacher said I was rubbish

If your teacher ever, ever, EVER said that about you or to you, they need a really good kicking.

I am quite serious.

Every time I start my first lesson with a new student, particularly one who is nervous, I ask them whose problem it is if they don’t understand something.

Most of them think it is theirs.

I shock them by telling them it’s mine.

If my student doesn’t understand something, I need to teach it a different way. Perhaps they need a memory phrase to chant. Or a simple picture. Or something with colour. Or a flow chart. Or a step by step chart. Perhaps I need to use Socratic Method. Maybe, just maybe, I need to allow them to get it wrong a few times and get them to explain their method to me.

With the exception of one student who had significant learning difficulties, I have yet to have a single adult student who could not perform basic maths functions and understand basic maths principles by the time they had finished their course with me. In some cases it may have taken more lessons, or more homework, or more time. It may have taken three or four different methods of explanation. I spent three lessons with one lady teaching her how to write out numbers in the thousands and millions. We tried no less than 5 different methods. Method number 5 worked and she now writes all of the cheques for her husband’s business.

If your teacher told you that you were rubbish at maths, that was not a weakness on your part. That was a failure on their part because they were not willing to take the time to find the right way to teach you. Or it was a failure on the school administration’s part for not allowing them the time or support necessary to help you in the way that you needed. It Was Not Your Fault and I wish you could come and do your course with me. I would open your eyes. As would any of my 4 teaching colleagues who hold the same view as I do.

With the exception of one or two sadistic assholes who have been described to me, I actually have a lot of sympathy with the teachers and think that more blame rests on the school administration and the government education policy of the time. Teachers are pushed hard. There is no back up and consolidate time. Just push forward and push forward and push forward and whoops-that-child-fell-behind-but-I-don’t-have-time-to-stop-and push forward…

Just listen to this for a second, especially you Americans:

In the UK we start our kids in compulsory education at a very young age. Free nursery places are funded for children from the age of 3. By the age of 4 they’re in reception class, which includes structured learning and in some cases children are already wearing an official school uniform. By the time I was 4 I was wearing full uniform including a school tie and lace up shoes, just like the Big Kids. At 5 they enter year 1, which is where targets and testing for literacy and numeracy kick in and teachers’ performances are assessed according to the test results attained by their charges in reading and numeracy.

From what I understand, in the US children don’t start at Kindergarten until the age of 5, and 1st Grade begins at 6? Is that right? So our children are being tested and having results recorded a full two years younger than those in the USA and most European countries. That’s why they leave 2 years earlier.

This is not a recipe for success. It is a recipe for paranoia. Many of my students who are adults have been weighed, measured and found wanting in their mathematical ability based on testing and scoring that was started when they were 4 years old. In some countries they would not have started primary education for another 3 years. That terrifies me. Not least because our education system is so pressured that there is no time to back up and re-explain a topic if a child does not get the concept. We don’t hold people back for grades/years here – we push them on to the next level and expect them to cope. And funny enough, those worries and fears and lack of understanding just turn from a snowball into an avalanche and people get buried.

And once I explain to them that their perceptions of their ability are massively out of context and out of whack – suddenly they start to breathe again, stop turning blue and possibly start to think that things might be different this time around.

* How am I supposed to know what all those words mean?

A massive failing in our education system is the lack of time in which to teach background knowledge. Simple things which, when viewed in context, open up the meanings of mathematical words.

For example, when I teach percentages, we look at the meaning of the word. Percent means ‘Out of 100’ or ‘For each 100’ – and Boom! Straight away people can see where that x100 or /100 comes from in the equation – the clue is in the name!

When I teach distance and measurements, we look at the latin roots of cent, mili and kilo. If people can remember what they mean, it can help them remember how to calculate with and convert metric measurments.

Again, if you were never told what the words meant, it’s not surprising that you were having difficulty with maths. I use memory tricks and examples for all types of averages, for perimeter, area, volume. I draw little diagrams to explain to people why those little sums work. And they never forget then. They remember their crazy maths tutor telling them how you freeze a swimming pool to get a big ice CUBE and that’s why water is measured in meters CUBED.

Learning maths is like learning how to play Monopoly or any other board game. If you came from another planet and were given the Monopoly set with no instructions, you could look at that board and those pieces all day with no clue what to do. But once somebody explains it and shows you how the board fits together, what the words mean and what the instructions mean – suddenly it’s easy and you wonder why you never understood it before.

* I never had to do this at school / This wasn’t for the likes of me at school

This one especially applies to women. And my teacher training threw up some shocking facts on this one.

The UK first introduced its national curriculum in 1991. Up until then, there was no official government mandate on what had to be covered in either primary or secondary education.

For primary education, common sense governed. But at secondary level, two major parts of UK education came into play.

The first was the existence of the 11+ exam.

The separation of children into academic and vocational teaching paths at the age of 11 was a standard educational tool in the UK for generations. It has been largely phased out, but there are still a few towns, cities and counties where the grammar system still exists. I live in one of them.

Academic courses such as Maths, Science, Languages, etc were compulsory in Grammar schools. They were not compulsory in secondary modern schools. This has lead, in the British mindset, to the conception that Maths is only for ‘Brainy People’ and has little relevance to everyday life. After all, if it was that important, it would have been taught everywhere, right?

Given that our Grammar system also largely favoured the middle classes, whose families had the time, living space and spare money to encourage their children’s education and support them, this preconception also broadened into the idea that Maths and its educational ilk were only for ‘Posh People’. The idiocy of this idea is one of the many reasons why I despise my country’s obsession with class and the idea of ‘knowing your place’. We are working on phasing that out. However, for the 30+, 40+ and sometimes 50+ year old adults that I teach, that is quite deeply ingrained and sometimes difficult to shift without telling my own life story. On the surface, I am a well spoken, presentable, academic, education, professional young woman who can drive and who is getting married and who has taken the decision to not have children. To the working class, manual labour, heavily accented, harrassed mothers who are working full time and who have the guts to sign up for this class, it must be quite difficult for them to swallow this toff nosed little girl telling them that being able to do maths is nothing to do with class…

But anyway, the Grammar exam was only part of the story. The other part of the story is the segregation of education by gender.

Because there was no mandatory coverage of education, up until as late as 1991 it was not compulsory for any girl to study mathematics at secondary education level (although it was usually the case at grammar schools). So, any woman who left school until as late as 1993 (to cover those who opted out of Maths in 1991 at the start of CSEs/O-levels) was not guaranteed to have studied any Maths from the age of 11, or to have sat any Maths qualifications at all. Ever.

Some did. But it was not compulsory. And so cannot be relied upon as a given. As I discovered the first time I said to someone in their late 30s ‘but you MUST have done this at school’, and she told me that no, indeed she hadn’t, and that was why she wanted to learn now.

There are reams and reams and reams of women, grown up women working full time and demanding jobs both in employment and in terms of being mothers and wives and household managers, who have never completed their education in maths. They were told, by our education institutions and government, that it wasn’t for ‘the likes of them’, that it ‘wasn’t for girls’, that it ‘was only for posh people’ and that ‘their husbands would sort out things like that’ – all of those are quotes from my students, past and present.

To return to the point…

My country’s governments, over several generations, have created this mess. They start schooling too young, they push too hard and our children are turfed out too early. They have allowed sexism and the class structure to determine who should be taught what, with the only elements of meritocracy featuring at 11, 16 and 18 years old. They are beginning to realise what a mess their adult work force are in regarding basic skills. I know this. I’ve read the government reports.

They had something going for them when they were funding the courses I teach. Free tuition in Literacy and Numeracy, taught in the workplace, taught one-to-one to build confidence and ability and positive relationships with tutors.

They have now stopped this funding and provision. And these people who were left high and dry in this mess are now being sent back to classrooms, for 6 times as long, for time they can ill afford to do courses which are not suitable to the needs they have.

Well done Coalition Government. You know, for all your fuckups I was championing your cause on your provision for Adult Education, even though you’re selling off our NHS, ruining our economy and not listening to your people. I championed you as having this success story. And now you’re getting rid of it.

You finally made a non-believer out of me.

And now I begin to despair.

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