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Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Prime Minister For A Day

I like maths because I enjoy solving problems. I like the feeling of challenge, the sense of intellectual stimulation, the satisfaction of getting the right answer. I particularly love that feeling you get when you're in the flow. Do you know what I mean? The feeling that time no longer matters, where distractions cease to distract, where you find yourself in an almost trance-like state, entirely concentrating on the task in hand.

Perhaps there are maths teachers out there who can induce a similar atmosphere in their classrooms. Maybe. Maybe their students get in "the flow" when faced with solving quadratic equations or using circle theorems. Maybe. Just maybe.

I'm certainly not one of those teachers. Sometimes my students are happy to get stuck in to a puzzle (re-arranging difficult formulae with y10 went down better than I expected) but too much maths without a context usually turns them off.

So I jumped at the chance when a colleague of mine suggested having a "teacher mash-up" where we would team teach my y9 maths class and give them a politics lesson with a bit of maths thrown in. He had a resource called "Prime Minister for A Day" where you are given a list of govenrment run programmes and £500 million to spend of them. As a politics taster lesson it's already got a bit of numeracy in there because the students have to add and subtract large numbers, but we felt there could be more mathematics involved if we scratched the surface.

We started by putting a more contemporaneous spin on things by giving the y9s the same list and telling them they had to cut 4.25 billion of spending. This meant cutting approximately 75% of the programmes on the list. We then gave them some pie charts represting opinion poll data from different groups of people. I created the pie charts and had a go at exaggerating the opinions of differnet groups of people such as pensioners, young mothers, guardian readers, business people, daily mail readers and 11-17 year olds.

We talked to the students about sampling and opinion poll data. They recapped what they had recently learned in their data handling project about stratified sampling and how that could give a more accurate picture of the views of the whole country. We talked about what the number 4.25 billion actually looks like (and eventually got it right after I messed it up the first time!). They discussed the huge numbers involved in government spending.

The lesson was great fun and my colleague delivered it brilliantly, but for me the best moments came when I realised how much my sutdents already knew. Eariler in the year we had done a project called "money matters" where they looked at wages, salaries, rent and bills. I'd given them articles from BBC news about average salaries and the difference between high and low earners and the students had clearly taken it on board. Near the beginning of the lesson they discussed the taxation system and whether rich people should pay more. They gave an impressively accurate figure for the average salary (£26,000). They had a discussion about what percentage of the population might be considered rich and made the point that the top 10% of earners are quite spread out. They knew that the super-rich didn't constutite 10% of the population.

At the end of the lesson they hadn't ticked off any new objectives in the national curriculum. But they had furthered their understanding of government finances, sampling techniques and large numbers. AND they had practiced debating, empathy, and rational decision making. All in all, a worthwhile lesson.

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