Let's Not Pigeon Hole Knowledge

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GCSE Maths By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Maths » GCSE Maths
Last updated: 30/03/2018
Tags: excellent communication, learn how to avoid the pitfalls, linking maths with other subjects

In this article I am going to argue that students shouldn't be leaving their English skills at the door when walking into a maths class, and that generally, tutors should encourage learners to think past the boundaries in knowledge that 'classroom subject' put up. Let those boundaries be blurred.

So, to set the scene, my A-level Mechanics student and I have been working on exam practice for over an hour. We have a good relationship. He is really a lot like I was at 17 – in that he seems almost afraid of using words in his work! We have looked over his answers to about four questions. He has got more right than wrong, but he has made some mistakes. I always assure students it's OK to make mistakes – "that's how we learn"  - and I won't always correct them immediately, before we have seen where they lead. But after reviewing a completed answer, even if I can commend him on getting the right answer, I still ask him to guide me through the heap of equations and calculations, because he does not include a word of explanation.

Another example; before teaching privately, I took a GCSE Maths class of adults at the FE college. These were students with a difficult history with maths, it was a challenge to make the subject relevant. When we reached the part of the course on running and studying surveys, the class came alive. They could then use their language skills. One student -  a star on this part of the course - commented that she didn't think this was 'part of Maths'.

So to my main point – Knowledge knows no boundaries. What we learn under one banner can complement skills we are trying to learn under another.

I have a favourite clip on YouTube  - comedian Tim Minchin giving an address at  the graduation ceremony  of his alma mata*. After bemoaning the distinction made by the traditional split in education, he says "the arts and sciences need to work together to improve how knowledge is communicated." I think the key words here 'work together' and 'communicate'. 

*(Search for Tim Minchin UWA on YouTube. He also praises teachers - but the whole address does have some adult content).

While writing this article, I came across a report about a school in Finland where all boundaries between teaching subjects are to be broken down. This is radical and I'll be interested in reading how it works. I think the 'Finland Solution' would present difficult practicalities in a UK Tutoring situation as we mostly have our own specialities. Generally we are employed to help our students pass specific examinations, and these are tied to classroom subjects. And we have our own specialisms – for all my words here I am offering myself as a Maths tutor; that's what I know best.

But I am also offering myself as an individual and I have wide interests and so do my students, which I do try to connect to. I am a maths tutor but I'm also an aspiring writer with interests in film and travel. If I left part of myself at the front door, I believe I'd be a less effective as a tutor. 

As part of this approach, I encourage students to bring other knowledge into studying maths, specifically language skills. I have a justification. At least two GCSE boards mark a few select questions on Maths papers with a *. I doubt many students would read the directions on the front of an exam unless pushed. There it is explained that "Questions labelled * are ones where the quality of your written communication will be assessed."

I would argue though that answers to any 'problem' question will benefit from having words of description included. As a fellow tutor said to me recently, the student needs to tell a story. Sometimes I'll frame my encouragement in terms of getting the method marks, sometimes that making examiners' lives easier will get you sympathy and thus credit. It's also true, as I explain to my A-level student, mentioned at the start; he will spot his own mistakes more quickly if he takes the trouble to describe what he is doing, to the page and so to himself.

But the bottom line is, the student is learning to communicate his ideas, a skill for life and no less important because this is maths.

Chris Read GCSE Maths Tutor (Leeds)

About The Author

I'm a maths tutor with experience and a great enthusiasm for the subject, which I aim to share with all students. I also aim to help each pupil reach the qualifications they need.

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