Alexi Makris, Education Associate at Enabling Enterprise and former Maths teacher, looks at how to bring Maths out of the classroom and into the real world at secondary schools.


In 2010 the Functional Skills initiative was set to shake up how teachers delivered the GCSE maths curriculum, encouraging students to put their maths learning into a functional and real life context. As a new teacher at the time, yet to get to grips with the curriculum, I didn’t really understand the implications of what would be different for students using this approach. I was part of lots of department meetings about how to make sure students would be ‘ready for these questions’, and whether we should have lessons focusing on functional skills, or try to embed it into all of our lessons – not an easy task as any teacher with a full timetable would testify.

In the end the big shock in the exams was nothing like as big as everyone feared. The wording of a few questions was slightly different, with students needing to communicate their solutions in a way that demonstrated qualitative inference from their calculations. However, the fact that such measures have been introduced, and the ‘fears’ around them have kept teachers and heads of department awake at night, describe a much deeper issue that surrounds maths education:
Why aren’t students’ maths skills the set of broad problem solving tools that maths is fundamentally designed to be?

Anecdotally many maths teachers (myself included) will be aware of a broad perception that the maths students learn in the classroom is detached from reality – and in particular, employability. There is a wide body of research that suggests despite rising GCSE results, students aren’t ready for the maths and numeracy challenges they will face in the world of work:

• Employers’ concerns that the levels of work related maths skills students leave school with are too low is widely reported (CBI, 2012), and current GCSE A*-C results mask a long trail of underachievement.
• Children’s poor basic numeracy is estimated to cost the UK £2.4bn annually (KPMG, 2008).
• The Department for Business Innovation and Science’s 2011 Skills for Life survey reports that despite 60% of students leaving school with a grade C or above in GCSE Maths, only 18% of the same group had built maths knowledge or skills appropriate for many jobs.
• UK has dropped on the OECD’s international maths rankings from 8th to 28th in the period 2000-2009.

An additional problem for teachers to provide this skills focus is a ‘performative culture’ and high emphasis on testing that is pushing problem solving and high expectations further out of classrooms (Mansell, 2007; Boaler, 2009). There are lots of fantastic ways in which teachers are engaging students with maths, but most teachers will be able to give examples of friends or peers who end up being forced to compromise creative pedagogy to ‘teach to the test’ with A*-C figures on the line.

This is the problem FS was brought in to solve. So how can problems and projects support this aim?
Jo Boaler has done a lot of research into the benefits of problem based learning, and in particular ‘group worthy tasks’ where students learn in an enriched way by engaging maths skills to answer bigger questions and briefs, solving the problems embedded in them. Her research has shown a variety of benefits: “The students were given the opportunities to work on interesting problems that required them to think, and not just reproduce methods, and they were required to discuss mathematics with each other, increasing their interest and enjoyment” (recent review). Students also improved their social skills as their discussion in groups helped support their learning in a variety of ways (Boaler, 2008).

At Enabling Enterprise, we support this approach as we bring the world of work into the classroom through enterprising student led projects followed by trips to top businesses, and believe this is a great way to tackle this problem.
In consultation with teachers and subject leads we have developed classroom projects that will be a maths lesson’s window into the real world of work. This might be a six-lesson project to turn around student use of the playground, supported by management consultant Oliver Wyman, where teams use a range of data collection and analytical skills before proposing a change to the Student Leadership Team. Or it could be that students develop their own board game for a project supported by Hamleys, where they work out probability and scoring and explore shape and space as they create a prototype. Students will be given a context and extended project in which to demonstrate their maths skills and embed their learning on a relational level by exploring the best way to fulfil a brief. To cap it all off students will then go on a business visit to see how maths is used by the businesses for real.

The goal is to provide engaging, real-life stimuli and resources for teachers to help bring the curriculum to life, and to give students the opportunity to see the relevance of maths in the real world. We also hope to raise the profile and awareness of maths related jobs, a sector that will be crucial to economic recovery as growth in STEM-skills employment is projected to be double the average for all occupations as the UK economy recovers (Accenture, 2011).

Maths is fun, and so are the things you can apply it to. What’s not fun is learning a process to fill a space on a page in an exam hall. We think bringing maths to life will help students in that exam hall, and open up a wider range of interests, skills, curiosity and post-school opportunities for young people.

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