The challenges of learning and teaching maths

Things are looking up for mathematics. A few years ago, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects were the focus of much hand-wringing and a government inquiry. Revamping sixth-form mathematics had resulted in a drop in maths A-level entry, Stem subjects were under-recruiting at university, and it was still fashionable for adults to admit “I’m no good at maths,” despite mathematical understanding underpinning not only all the other sciences but daily life and the national economy, from credit card rates to plumbing repairs to air traffic control and the risks of taking medication.

Adrian Smith’s 2004 report into post-14 mathematics was blunt: to compete in the global economy, the UK needed more specialist mathematics teachers with better continuing professional development (CPD) and a curriculum focused on the real world. There followed the Sainsbury review of 2007 on scientific research, the Williams report of 2008 on primary maths and last year’s (2009) CBI report demanding more business involvement in Stem higher education.

And the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), was set up in 2006 with £28.6m, and given responsibility for developing CPD until 2011. It has been, says Smith, “a fantastic success”. Its web portal now has 35,000 active registered users clicking 2.3m page impressions. They check their professional expertise with the self-evaluation tool, share experiences and materials in online communities, and analyse their lessons with the Next Steps programme, which suggests ways to take teaching further. Monthly magazines for early years, primary, secondary and further education teachers offer practical ideas, such as using puddles in the playground to teach measurement, or hairdressing appointments for critical path analysis.

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