The Language of Mathematics in Science

Posted by @Grefintec on 14th May 2016 in Getting Started |

The Association for Science Education (ASE) aim to promote excellence in science teaching and learning. Whilst not a member I registered to receive regular newsletters and am an avid follow on Twitter. They offer regular CPD opportunities and when I spotted an opportunity to attend a workshop entitled ‘The Language of Mathematics in Science‘. I was a bit anxious about attending, after all I am not yet a teacher (far from it) but it seemed a really good opportunity to learn more about the curriculum and to meet some science teachers.

University of Huddersfield

University of Huddersfield

I needn’t have worried. Everyone was very welcoming and I certainly didn’t feel like the odd man out. I learnt a great deal and it proved to be a very valuable experience. The session was led by Richard Needham (@ViciaScience). Some of what was discussed I would probably have taken for granted or at least would have had a a standard methodology in place; but reflecting back on one of my teaching experience days when the children had been asked to calculate rate by first drawing a graph, I immediately recognised some of the problems being discussed. It corroborated exactly with the issues of lack of standardised teaching between what was being taught in the mathematics department and that taught in the science and humanities departments. The ability to draw or interpret a graph is required not just in maths and science, but regularly crops up in geography eg climate data and even history eg population data.

Until it is actually put in front of you, I would never have realised that there were so many ways to plot one set of data. Significant differences were observed between scale choices, coordinate markers and especially trendlines. Other areas where there was a recognised lack of consistency in teaching included: How to calculate rate from a graph, when to teach standardised units and even how to calculate a ratio.

It certainly would be confusing to a pupil to be taught different techniques to do the same thing, not just between subjects but between teaching staff, so I fully applaud the development of a standardised shared working method which would be valuable across the whole school. However, it would not be good if the pupils were penalized for choosing to use methods that were not strictly in adherence to these guidelines. This is probably the thing that I have heard most discussion about since starting on my teaching journey, and that is if in maths the set method for calculating a particular sum is not used, and you get the sum wrong, then you will not get a mark for the working out, even if it was to some degree accurate eg in GCSE maths the working out can be worth 3/4 of the marks for the question. Whilst I completely appreciate that it is confusing for pupils to be taught different methods to calculate the same thing, punishing pupils for what is a mathematical fact of life is not fair. I have even seen pupils being taught one method for a couple of years eg to do division using partitioning, only to be told that this is wrong and to use the bus stop method instead. Surely, consistency is key, but punishing pupils for using a method that works is completely unfair. I have worked within industry sponsored academia and how you calculated something did not matter, as long as the answer was correct and you got publishable and reproducible results.

Putting it simply, we have all seen the numbers round on Countdown. How many times have we seen the players use different methods to achieve the same result? It does not make the answer any less valid. Exams should reflect real life use of maths, not one Government department’s preferred method which could change whenever the team within that department has a reshuffle and the new team leader wants to make their mark.

The Language of Mathematics in Science : A Guide to Teachers of 11-16 Science will be published later this month and will be available as a free .pdf download from the ASE website.


NB This post reflects my own views and are not associated with either the Association for Science Education or the University of Huddersfield.

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