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Paulclem

Returning To Maths

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It is 31 years since I failed, retook and passed my O’Level Maths as a bemused 16 year old who had little idea, beyond the narrow calculations of my experience, about the world and its machinations. I did as little Maths as possible at the time, avoiding it at home, and dreading double maths on a Thursday afternoon. As a young teen I little appreciated that it takes effort to improve in anything worthwhile.

I did get a big clue about learning in those years. A friend, who was pretty good at Maths, once told me that it was playing around with numbers. I didn’t have the mindset to see it like that. It was work and effort. I preferred reading and writing and playing with words. I focused upon writing poetry and understanding literature instead. I thought I was good at that.

It was as a trainee teacher that I first found myself coming back to Maths. It caused me a little anxiety, as, by then, I had not thought about schoolroom Maths for 10 years or so, but I found the lecturer to be an interesting bloke committed to the subject. He would regale us with stories of teaching kids called Wayne or Elvis in the North East of England, as he presented us with interesting methods and ways of thinking about and teaching the subject. It was him, as much as the Maths, that got me interested. So I did my training and tried a few things and found I enjoyed teaching Maths to the kids I taught, and then to the Adults I came across later.

I see Maths as essentially a problem of language. How do I explain, in a variety of simple ways with understandable illustrations, what is a very logical system of numbers? How do I explain the logical to the illogical – which we can all be at times. How do I create an environment of learning that will inculcate that feeling of play, alongside the importance, that my friend had indicated years ago?

Anyway, by a fluke of administrative ineptitude, or something like that, last year I found myself entered for a L3 qualification in Maths. I had an O’Level, but needed to qualify to a level above that to be able to teach it, and to put myself forward as a competent teacher of Maths in schools should my own job with the local authority go belly up.

I got the same kinds of fears – I’m rubbish at Maths, I’m not a natural mathematician etc, etc. All the old excuses came rolling back. The difference this time was that I knew it was all lies. Things might be difficult, but any average Joe, like myself, can learn things with effort. I couldn’t escape the conclusion of years of teaching reluctant children and adults that, yes, you can learn something if you put in the time and have a bit of fun.

So today I took my first Maths exam in 31 years. I did prepare, as I have a professional reputation to keep up. Of course, it wouldn’t be a real qualification without there being the strong possibility of a fail dropping onto the mat in August. Still rubbish at Maths? Possibly.

Updated 06-13-2011 at 06:05 PM by Paulclem

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  1. OrphanPip's Avatar
    My cousin teaches math as well, she has a degree in music education and a bachelor of fine arts in jazz performance. Music teacher jobs are apparently very hard to fine, but she tells me that she really does enjoy teaching math even though she never enjoyed learning math.

    I'm sure you'll do fine on the exam. I think you're right that anyone can learn math with enough effort. It's not as difficult as people make it out to be. Then again, I always got better grades in math than I did in English and French. I'm astounded by people who can master multiple languages without much effort.
  2. TheFifthElement's Avatar
    I think there's a mystique about maths that is hard to break. I think when you say:
    Quote Originally Posted by Paulclem
    I see Maths as essentially a problem of language.
    that's a really insightful comment, because I think maths relies a lot on precision of language - all those xs and ys stand for something and you have to kind of figure out what. Something about it feels counter-intuitive, but with focus and effort it can be broken. I would like to study maths more now that I'm an adult than when I was a child, as I think I'd appreciate it much more now. I feel the same about physics too - when I was a kid I just didn't get it, now I prefer it to any of the sciences, though perhaps that's more because it feels like a bit of a mystery. Who knows.

    You'll have to let us know how you got on.
  3. Virgil's Avatar
    I was excellent at math in high school and younger, but once I got to college all of a sudden I struggled just to be average. In high school I didn't even need to study to get 90's+. In college was a C math student. I can't understand why or what happened. SoI've seen both sides of this, where math came natural and where it didn't. I would not use the language analogy or x's and y's or any thing like that. When math came natural it was like a huge puzzle coming together in one's head. It all formed into a whole and you could visualize it. When it didn't it was like the puzzle pieces weren't fitting together, as if there was a piece either missing or deformed and I was forcing the pieces together in a way they didn't complete a whole. Not sure if you can understand that.

    By the way, I don't think non science/engineering/math oriented people understand what the highest levels of math are like. Undergrad engineering required three levels of calculus, differential equations, and advanced math. Oh and throw in statistics too. Plus application of all that math in most of the engineering classes. I was sick of math by the end of my undergrad degree and it completely turned me off from getting a masters in science or engineering.

    Hope you did well Paul.
  4. OrphanPip's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by Virgil
    I was excellent at math in high school and younger, but once I got to college all of a sudden I struggled just to be average. In high school I didn't even need to study to get 90's+. In college was a C math student. I can't understand why or what happened. SoI've seen both sides of this, where math came natural and where it didn't. I would not use the language analogy or x's and y's or any thing like that. When math came natural it was like a huge puzzle coming together in one's head. It all formed into a whole and you could visualize it. When it didn't it was like the puzzle pieces weren't fitting together, as if there was a piece either missing or deformed and I was forcing the pieces together in a way they didn't complete a whole. Not sure if you can understand that.
    I think there's something to what you're saying Virgil. I remember when I took linear algebra in college it came so naturally to me I seemed to be getting As without any effort. At the same time I struggled through applying calculus in physics courses on electricity and magnetism.

    What you say about higher level maths is true of a lot of fields. University sciences have the exponential increase in difficulty that they throw at undergrads. I think it's a sign of the failure of Western science and maths education in high school. Kids should begin getting more advanced science education earlier if they have the aptitude.
  5. Paulclem's Avatar
    Thanks Orphan - it seemed straightforward, but from experience you never can tell.

    Thanks Fifth - I think precision of language is a good phrase which i shall use now. I've found that I'm a different person - more logical, than I was at school, and the common sense side of things has helped me a lot.

    Thanks Virgil. I think the language precision for teaching is important, but I know what you mean about things coming together. Don't get me wrong - the level I was doing didn't involve any advanced stuff at all - mainly practical maths problems and maths logic. I did find that immersing myself in the languge and probems really helped. Thinking about it, what we do with literature is read around, the biography of the poet, some reviews, views on the poems and lit crit. We develop the language to address it and the terms of reference and stories that go with that. I think it would be a good way to teach maths too. The history of maths - the little that I know - is fascinating, and that, plus more practical applications, language explanations etc has got to help to create the mental conditions for maths to come together. I know you've got to be able to"do" the maths at the end of the day, but I found that I could visualise unfamilar problems about concepts I knew better after the immersion.
  6. Paulclem's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by OrphanPip
    I think there's something to what you're saying Virgil. I remember when I took linear algebra in college it came so naturally to me I seemed to be getting As without any effort. At the same time I struggled through applying calculus in physics courses on electricity and magnetism.

    What you say about higher level maths is true of a lot of fields. University sciences have the exponential increase in difficulty that they throw at undergrads. I think it's a sign of the failure of Western science and maths education in high school. Kids should begin getting more advanced science education earlier if they have the aptitude.
    I agree with you both on that. It is definately neglected in schools, I think because there are a lack of good, inspiring teachers. I used to find that the teaching creativity went into other things. have you ever been in a maths block in a school? Just boring looking, and yet it has so much potential.

    I'm interested in trying to understand the higher maths now - though I doubt I'll be able to take a course for a while. I know it's a language, and I'm nosey.
  7. Buh4Bee's Avatar
    What a thoughtful entry.

    I myself am taking a course over the summer to learn how to teach Math better and I am terrified. I am LD in Math, so I have a hard time understanding algebraic patterns. I can relate to the fear of math. However, I agree that if a student is capable, they should be pushed as long as the level is developmentally appropriate.

    I hope you passed and feel relief.
  8. Paulclem's Avatar
    Thanks Jersea.

    What does LD in Maths mean? I found it easier as an adult Jersea, and teaching it is fun. I like it very much. I get my result in August.

    One thing I noticed about how Maths is regarded is that it's ok to say I'm rubbish at Maths whereas it's not ok to say I'm a poor reader or writer.
  9. The Comedian's Avatar
    My hat's off to you Paul. I'm working with my daughter on her math skills over the summer; she's 6, so we're doing basic skills work: 8+9, 5-3, . . .that sort of thing. And that's a bit of a challenge for me.
  10. Buh4Bee's Avatar
    LD- learning disabled. I have no diagnosis, I just always refer to my short-coming this way.
  11. Paulclem's Avatar
    Thanks Comedian. I used to feel like that too, so I know what it's like.

    Thanks Jersea.