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Friday, 11 April 2014

You mean... you have an arts degree? *pulls horrified face*

Note: For a powerful argument about why we should stop drawing dividing lines between arts and sciences read this summary of the views of Eric Schmidt (chairman of google).

If you’ve had a look through this blog before, you might have read the “about me” section at the side where I explain that I did a history degree before going on to become a maths teacher. This information mildly interests some people, worries others, and sends a select bunch into a heightened state of moral outrage.

This last group – the righteously indignant - are of course the most entertaining, and I’ve learned to develop a thick skin when they air their short-sighted opinions. Upon hearing the news that I had a history degree, one man abruptly stopped the perfectly pleasant conversation we were having and started spluttering “I wouldn’t let you anywhere near children” before walking off.  Another person reacted by saying that I could never be taken seriously as a professional and surely I should be teaching primary school children.

I perfectly understand that most people are curious about the transition and they have legitimate questions about how I am able to teach secondary level maths. If the boot was on the other foot and someone told me they had a maths degree but they were going to teach history, I’d also find it strange.  I’d want to know 1) how they intended to improve their subject knowledge and 2) what their motivation was.

So I’m taking the opportunity to answer these two questions about myself. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while not just because I want to defend my professional integrity (although clearly I do – so apologies if this post occasionally sounds defensive!) but also because I know there are other people out there who are thinking about making the jump from an arts degree to teaching maths.  I want those people to know that if they have the right attitude, they should ignore the doubters and go for it. Maths is fun!!

The question about subject knowledge is always the one that seems to cause most concern and I can understand why. Of course you need to know what you are talking about. But if I could get one point across in this whole debate I would emphasise that teachers can learn things too. We don’t pop out of university as though we are plastic dolls leaving a production line, pre-programmed with certain features, only capable of parroting what our lecturers taught us. I started my maths-teacher training with A level maths and AS level further maths and a desire to learn more about the subject than I’d ever known at school. I bought books, read articles, watched videos on you tube, and opened my eyes and ears to things I hadn’t heard of before. When I decided that I wanted to improve my subject knowledge so I could teach A level maths, I enrolled on an Open University course (M208) which was 2nd year maths degree standard. It covered things like group theory, linear algebra and analysis, and I spent a year studying the 6 modules (which were supposed to be 600 hours worth of work). I passed with distinction.

For me, there have certainly been benefits to this approach. My lack of a maths degree means that improving my subject knowledge is a constant goal, so I’m always on the lookout to learn something new. I don’t feel like the finished article and I never will, so I’m not going to be complacent.  My AS and GCSE classes have also benefitted from the fact that I took a maths exam last summer, because I’ve been able to talk to them about my revision strategies and I’ve been able to empathise with the feeling that some things don’t “click” straight away.  I think it did me a lot of good to learn challenging things and put myself in the same position as my students, especially with the pressure of an exam. Last year, my OU exam was on the same day as the GCSE maths exam and my year 11 class told me that they really appreciated the way I had treated them during the revision period. “You get us” said one girl, “you don’t put us under too much pressure”. In that class, every student who sat their GCSE exam that summer met or exceeded their target grade. I’m biased of course, but I think that suggests that I know what I’m doing.

The second question about what motivated me to go from history to maths is, I think, a more interesting one, but I don’t get asked it as often. I’m going to give a longer (and hopefully more eloquent!) answer here than I ever manage to achieve in conversation.  Basically, I loved studying history at university because history is such as vast and varied subject and it relates to everything. Every country, every person, every academic subject, every religion has a history and (knowingly or unknowingly) we are all shaped by those histories. I also loved studying history because it’s about finding out how different people think. The Puritan idea of predestination (where they believe that some people are destined for eternal salvation, while others doomed to eternal damnation and we do not have the power to change our own path) always struck me as horrifying and I was fascinated by why so many people embraced this idea and how it affected their society. There’s a great article about it all here

In teaching, I see similarities with the fixed vs growth mindset debate, where some people are certain that intelligence is fixed and cannot be altered (the “predestination” view) whereas others think that with effort and the right kind of feedback they can improve (the “free will” view).

How is maths similar? Well, maths is also a vast and varied subject that can be related to everything else. We can appreciate art, nature, and music, more deeply because of mathematics. We have a greater understanding of politics and economics because of mathematics. In lessons, I’m constantly looking for links between maths and other subjects and the opportunities are boundless. I love bringing context into lessons and I love the creativity and freedom that comes with it. There is simply so much choice in how you can deliver each topic – just as there was so much choice for me as an undergraduate when I realised that I could pick any time period I wanted from the Vikings onwards.

Also, every decent maths teacher knows that teaching maths is about understanding how different people think. Some students need to see the bigger picture first – they need context, they need a reason for doing things, they need to know what the end result will be. Others are happy to discover things for themselves and they enjoy the process as much as the outcome. Some are comfortable thinking in an abstract way; others need a more concrete approach. Many students impose their own rules which don’t quite work and we need to unpick what they are doing and figure out what their underlying thinking is.  I like this challenge of figuring out how people think. Studying history gave me a good grounding in understanding that not everyone sees the world in the same way.

In truth, I chose to teach maths rather than history because Teach First were recruiting maths teachers rather than history teachers. At the time I thought I’d only teach for a few years before doing something else and maths had always been my favourite subject at school, so I thought I’d give it a go. Five and a half years later, as I get ready to take on the role of Head of Department next year, I can see that the diversity and intellectual challenge I loved in my history degree has been equalled by the diversity and intellectual challenge of planning and delivering decent maths lessons for my many and varied students.

I’d like to finish by arguing that, rather than being afraid of people who cross the invisible arts/science divide, more of us should come out and celebrate it. Eric Schmidt is completely right to point out that great thinkers have often been polymaths; especially those of the Victorian era. Steve Jobs also once said: "The Macintosh turned out so well because the people working on it were musicians, artists, poets and historians – who also happened to be excellent computer scientists". I find it sad that more people don’t embrace this viewpoint. In fact, it seems to me that people within education are often the ones most desperate to sort everyone into either the luvvy-artsy box or the nerdy-sciencey box. Surely we should be the ones arguing against this unhelpful divide?

All I can say is, if anyone tries to put me in a box, I’ll soon be fighting my way out.


  1. A very enjoyable read, thank you!
    I often have the opposite process when I step away from my day job of maths teacher, and do one of my hobbies, namely singing. When asked what I do and I say that I teach I regularly get the response, "Oh, so you're a music teacher." People are then confused when I gently correct them!
    I like that my pupils cannot pigeon hole me as 'just' a maths teacher. They see me playing hymns for assembly, preparing singers for concerts or shows, running a nature walk club, coaching sports teams etc. I believe that this also allows me to relate what we do in the classroom to the children's chosen specialism, be it music, sport or whatever, from a position of strength. Like you, I enjoy bringing a wide range of contexts into the classroom which enhances the learning that goes on.
    We are preparing pupils for a diverse world, and neither they, nor we, can know where their life will lead. To send them out with a closed attitude to one field or another due to narrow minded prejudice would be a dereliction of duty.

  2. Thanks for your comment singing hedgehog :-) It sounds like you do a great job with the students you teach - I'm impressed you have the time for all of those extra things! Your students are lucky to have you.
    Your comment is a really important addition to this post - I should have mentioned maths teachers with maths degrees have other interests too and shouldn't be pigeon holed either.