Real World Maths – or how it’s OK to be outside your comfort zone once in a while

21 April 2017

Kate Jones delivering her Real World Maths workshop

Kate Jones from Think Global reflects on a recent workshop she delivered at the Association for Teachers of Mathematics conference.

When you start a new job, you accept that you’ll feel out of your comfort zone for a while. At the old one, I could turn up to any sized room – full of five-year-olds, politicians, teachers, a whole University course – and deliver a well-structured, inspiring session with little prep. I knew Think Global would give my brain something new to chew on – but the idea of delivering a workshop at a Maths teachers’ conference took my comfort zone, tore it up and threw it out of the nearest window.

Many, many years ago I was that year 10 student who deeply irritated the deputy head by challenging her in front of the class to “come up with just one reason why quadratic equations are actually useful in real life”. Maths at school consisted of being shown a formula, and then completing 30 convoluted examples in those yellow exercise books with the tiny squares. The only time Maths felt real was a couple of lessons on the complexities of compound interest. In short, the subject was presented as dry, abstract, and hard. Even the textbook was heavy.

Fast forward 25 years and my workshop at the annual Association of Teachers of Mathematics conference was fast approaching, and I was properly nervous. Enter Real World Maths, a collaboration between Think Global and the Royal Statistical Society, focusing on applying Maths teaching to complex global problems, such as climate change or global development. Statistics and the stories they tell us about the world are fascinating to any Geographer like me, obsessed with bringing the world into the classroom, and suddenly I realised – if only we’d been examining real problems at school all those years ago, Maths would have been a completely different experience.

Real world maths - flipchart 1So I made a bargain with the workshop participants – if they’d do the Maths, I’d do the Real World. They agreed – phew! – and what followed was a fascinating session covering techniques, pedagogy and evaluation of resources. We discussed what makes a good global learner – one teacher thought “curious” was crucial – and looked at what Real World Maths might do to support teachers to challenge exactly the sort of attitudes I’d had about Maths at school.

The discussion about whether to avoid controversial issues in class, how disagreement might be managed and what the teachers felt about dealing with different viewpoints, was particularly interesting. It’s clear that teachers both need and want support and guidance in how to manage discussion and difference of opinion in the classroom. Thinking about it afterwards, I also felt that the opportunity for reflection, critical thinking and discussion is something that makes school a unique place for young people, and it is important that teachers feel they have the tools and space to allow it where it feels right for them.

Along with guidance from ATM publications we looked at resources from charities like Oxfam, Fairtrade and ActionAid and evaluated them for relevance to the Maths curriculum and different classroom contexts. Hans Rosling’s fantastic videos came up, of course.

Real world maths - flipchart 2One teacher suggested a great way of learning how to calculate area was by looking at prison cells in countries around the world, while another had used population pyramids to get students problem-solving and interpreting data. A third talked through activities they led about voting systems, allowing students to manipulate voting data across constituency boundaries, analysing first past the post versus proportional representation, yet still giving the same result each time. This might be particularly relevant to try in class over the next couple of months to help young people understand our democracy, its strengths as well as its limitations.

The workshop over, the teachers said they felt inspired and wanted to try out some of the ideas that had come up. I was just pleased I hadn’t had to do any quadratic equations.

Key resources

ATM Publication Teaching Mathematics for Social Justice (2016) full of learning activities and articles

Oxfam Education Publication Maths and Global Citizenship is a guide to help teachers link together these two curriculum areas

Resources evaluated by the workshop group

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