Perhaps no other school subject commands awe quite like mathematics. ‘Awe’ is an apt word, given that maths is both respected and feared in equal measure.
Mathematics possesses the power to inspire people with a profound sense of intelligence, or a crushing sense of defeat. It can be as rewarding as it can be punishing. In maths lessons there is nowhere to hide; you got it right, or you got it wrong, and this brutal clarity excites and terrifies students.
While built on a bedrock of straightforward logic, the deluge of information encoded into every word and step of mathematical reasoning can leave novice minds utterly overwhelmed. If a small piece of this expansive mathematical knowledge is missing, a person may struggle interminably to understand everything that comes next. As a new teacher, you may find yourself working with groups of students who harbour a ‘Swiss cheese’ mathematical understanding.
Yet, it need not be this way, and what a subject it is to teach! Time and again our civilisation’s pioneers step forward to uncover nature’s secrets, only to reveal yet another unimagined link between the threads of a mathematical tapestry that underpins and directs our world. In a universe where Pi dictates the size of fish, ratios determine both musical and aesthetic beauty, with one ratio to rule them all; when a shadow can measure the entire Earth, zero can bring a submarine to its knees, insects have prime numbers and geometric shapes buried in their DNA, and Pythagoras’ theorem reveals a secret so horrifying that he and his school would kill to protect it, there can be no doubt that ours is a reality united by the patterns of mathematics. As Galileo once said, ‘The great book of nature can only be read by those who understand the language in which it is written, and that language is mathematics.’ Ours is the exciting opportunity to empower students with a deep sense and understanding of this language, and with it, the chance to read one of the greatest stories ever told. Perhaps most exciting of all, it’s a language everyone can learn.
This is an extract from the introduction to ‘How To Start on Teach First: Maths’ published on Amazon and edited by Kris Boulton, Teach First 2011 participant.