I promised a few weeks ago to tell a story about a pupil called Tommy.

I knew Tommy from teaching him PE, but nothing prepared me for my first week in the maths world. My year 8 group was an SEN group, made up with SpLD pupils, SLD, pupils a couple of pure behavioural issue pupils and assorted boys that no-one could teach. On paper a bit of a mix, but they were mine!

In the first week I wanted to get them comfortable with answering questions and coming out to the board to show answers.

They weren’t good at maths, NC levels were Level 2’s and the odd Level 3.  In this first lesson I asked them to pick a sum they would like to answer. Tommy chose 6-? = 0. Things had gone well. Everyone had answered their choice and we had smiles all round, no tantrums and no tears.

Then came Tommy’s turn.

“What’s the answer Tommy?” I asked.

Tommy smiled, a huge confident toothy grin. “16, sir”

“Sorry Tommy, that’s not quite right. Would you like another try” I suggested.

“13 ?” replied Tommy.

There weren’t too many sniggers from my class, not all knew that Tommy wasn’t right. After another incorrect answer I asked what turned out to be the most important question I have ever asked.

” Tommy, is there a way to do this without guessing?”

“No” came the honest and earnest answer.

I was flabbergasted, but it was the truth. To Tommy maths was just that, a complete mystery, with absolutely no method to get to the correct answer.

The lesson had to go on, so I called Tommy over with the rest of the group to try to help.

“Let’s play a game.” I said, collecting six coins from my pocket and placing them on a desk.

“Tommy, can you count how many coins we have.”

Tommy confidently counted 9 coins before an amazed group and a totally dispirited teacher. After a couple more attempts and a patient but worried teacher we got to 6.

“Right, here’s the game Tommy. I’m going to get you to close your eyes, then I’ll take some coins and I want you to work out how many I’ve taken”

Tommy closed his eyes, I resisted the urge to run out of the door, down the corridor and back to the safety of the PE department. I took all the coins and asked Tommy to open his eyes.

No coins on the table, Tommy looked at the table, looked at my hand, then looked confidently up at me.

“I’ve got it Mr F” he said, a look of complete awe on his face, “you’ve got 8 in your hand.”

Alex, a boy that had numerous SEN traits and a boy I had not managed to teach at all when he was in my PE group, tugged at my jacket. “Can I step outside?” he asked. Alex opened the door, we heard him go 10 steps down the corridor before he burst out laughing. He returned as if nothing had happened, and the mysteries of maths had to be tackled.

What did I learn?

Well it showed clearly that those pupils who lacked confidence in maths clearly felt that it was a mystery subject, that answers came from nowhere and that there wasn’t any way to unlock the code.

It showed me that there wasn’t ever a correct method, or an incorrect method, 6+7 is 13 whether we count on our fingers, use number bonds to say 6+4 =10 and 3 left from the 7, so 10+3=13, or we just remember it from before.

A good method is one that a pupil can use with confidence and reliably gets them to the correct answer.

I had to rip up many of my beliefs as a mathematician, and many of the beliefs of the National Curriculum. I was teaching pupils who believed they couldn’t do maths, or ever would, due to a slavish adherence to coverage of a curriculum, rather than teaching.

I had to teach Tommy how to count, had to teach his pals how to add and subtract and how to multiply and divide, and ultimately how to do algebra, and solve equations and work out internal and external angles and pythagorus theorem, but finding methods that they could use and become confident.

Maths wan’t a mystery, it was a series of small steps that relied on a method that they could use.

I taught Tommy a huge amount, but I learnt so much more from him.

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