Why “How I Wish I’d Taught Maths” Is So Challenging To Read

Big names in maths such as Dan Meyer, Jo Boaler, Ed Southall, Eddie Woo and the like are inevitably thought leaders across the maths teaching landscape across the world. These people have walked a mile in our shoes, knocking at each student’s door trying to sell them something they don’t want – maths. So when I found myself filling my Amazon basket with goodies, Craig Barton’s How I Wish I’d Taught Maths was at the top of the list. Anyone who has resorted to a late-night frantic clickfest on TES has undoubtedly stumbled across one of Craig’s resources in an attempt to teach an unplanned lesson in first period the following day. For those who have, they would appreciate the fact that Craig, similar to teachers like Robert Kaplinsky, Fawn Nguyen, Andrew Stadel and Jo Morgan, seem to either have some sort of time chamber to create and collate all of their resources or they’re just so committed to helping their maths comrades. Probably both – especially Jo, I mean have you seen one of her Hat Tips posts?? Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that the influence these people have on classrooms across the world is truly spectacular. When Craig’s book arrived in the mail, I was over the moon and couldn’t wait to get stuck into it. Currently, I’m sitting 100 pages in and have never had my own perception of teaching and learning mathematics challenged so strongly. It’s like a workout and I’m realising that I may have drastically plateaued as an educator.

My primary focus of writing any blog post is to try and capture what I’m thinking and feeling as I move through a change process, which is why I felt it was important to formulate something before I came out on the other side of the book with a changed mindset. Also, I wanted to put this out there to see if any other readers of Craig’s work felt in a similar way to how I currently do. Here’s where I’m at:

I feel undereducated as a teacher

Craig’s vastly encompassing research has provided his book with heavily armed artillery to demolish some key aspects I wear proudly on my sleeve as a maths teacher. The cognitive research elements of this book provide a deep lens into the “backstage” of students’ learning journeys. What Craig does so well is to tie his previously held philosophy and experiences to the current research, use it to form a new and often completely different philosophy. Although most sections I work through seem to challenge my own practice on levels I’m finding uncomfortable in admitting to, I’m understanding the reasons behind the varied level of success I’ve had across lessons I’ve taught in maths over the years. Craig’s book serves as a maths teaching health check I wish I had done earlier.

I wonder about his context

I’ve taught in two schools. The first was the Australian Science and Mathematics School, which was a specialised school targeted at providing an interdisciplinary approach to learning to successful applicants who loved maths and science from Year 10-12. The second, my current school, is Wirreanda Secondary School – from the outer, a seemingly typical high school in a low SES area, however, the school’s practices aim to provide students with a highly innovative educational experience, raising aspirations of students to achieve at the highest level. Having taught in these contexts, I feel a need to engage my current cohort in accessing what is presented to them. Like serving up a plate of healthy food, it needs to look and smell great – and sometimes not “seem” healthy at all. What I’m saying is, many of my students walk through the door expecting to fail. A key part of my role is to engage them in learning when they don’t believe they can. Much of Craig’s writing (so far) has talked about motivation and how this is impacted by success, which I feel doesn’t quite address the context of learners who won’t engage to start with. Like asking someone to try a food they have decided they don’t like despite never tasting it before.

The “Expert vs Novices” notion has changed my thinking completely

I know it seems obvious but I have realised that I’ve been asking my students to think in a completely different way than they’re currently capable of. Craig writes on how as “experts”, our minds have less space occupied in our working memory, allowing us to see and make connections between pieces of information and solve pretty full-on problems. “Novices”, however, rely more heavily on their working memory to process and understand essential information while carrying out routine operations in problems, leaving little space for higher order thinking to take place. As a teacher, this could explain why my students sometimes struggle to connect the dots despite my relentless efforts at helping them do so. I could be completely overloading them. I’m not up to the chapter yet, but I feel that the Cognitive Load Theory section might be quite relevant for me.

He’s a great teacher, but he doesn’t have my class

I’m not using this as an excuse by any means. What I’m telling myself here is that, despite the research, Craig’s experience, and his interviews with leaders in education, he doesn’t know the students walking through my door each day. As an educator, I need to take on what I read and adapt my practice to become better informed, but trying to teach in a completely different way because I respect Craig and the validity of his work is fraught with danger. I need to be careful with what I decide to throw out and keep in my own toolkit as one of the greatest risks of change in teacher practice is a loss of identity. I’m always very cautious about throwing the baby out with the bath water, although Craig’s sentiments are making it harder and harder – in a really good way.

This book is really fantastic so far and, as I mentioned earlier, it feels like a workout my pedagogy needed. Although my wife probably isn’t appreciating the amount of time it’s taking me to digest what I read while we’re holidaying across Middle Earth (New Zealand for non-hobbits), it’s changing how I think about my role as a maths educator with every page. It’s not common to voluntarily engage in something and have your mindset challenged and shifted, but I feel like I’d be doing a disservice to my students if I don’t finish this book.

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6 thoughts on “Why “How I Wish I’d Taught Maths” Is So Challenging To Read

  1. Thank you for your review! I just put it in my Amazon cart!
    I particularly appreciated your last reflection – that completely changing your way of thinking because of the book could be more detrimental than helpful. I think that often when my school runs PD or starts a new initiative, there’s not enough reflection as a school/institution about how that new theory could/should be best applied to our school community.

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    • I’m glad you got something from it and I agree with your point also, which is perhaps why it’s so important to have reflection processes built into the nature of our work even just as individual teachers. The deeper I’m delving into the book, the more reflective I’m being and realising that I personally have some non-negotiable elements of my own practice, especially around teaching through an inquiry lens. At the same time I can’t let one quite major difference taint how I read the entire book because there are many other things that are totally applicable and relevant for my own practice.

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  2. Pingback: Dealing With A Maths Conveyor Belt Curriculum | How I teach maths.

  3. Hi Mr. Rowe, very interesting reading! I am genuinely interested, how (if) the book changed your teaching from when you wrote the blog on maths without worksheets. Is that piece of writing still actual for you?

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  4. Pingback: What Impacts How Teachers Teach? | How I teach maths.

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