The Art of Leading a Department: Love of your Subject, Part 1

“It becomes the urgent duty of mathematicians, therefore, to meditate about the essence of mathematics, its motivations and goals and the ideas that must bind divergent interests together.”

Richard Courant

I’ve split the first proper part of The Art of Leading a Department because I feel there are two aspects to loving one’s subject: one aspect is the love of Mathematics itself; it’s history, creative elements, connections to the real world and the sheer breadth of fields and applications. The other aspect is the love of teaching Mathematics; the pedagogy and philosophy, the opportunity to get students engaged in the subject and helping reinforce the mathematical components of the school curriculum.

This post will look at the first part – the love of Mathematics itself.

It might sound pretty obvious, the notion that a teacher of Maths would take an interest in the subject they’re teaching – but I think you’d be surprised.

I have come across teachers who simply found themselves able to explain methods up to GCSE and A-level, but didn’t take much interest in, say, the historical elements, or recent developments in Mathematics (e.g. Perelman’s solution of one of the Millenium Problems – esoteric yes, but I think students are geniunely interested in the fact that there’s millions available simply for solving Mathematics problems). It wasn’t that they didn’t like Maths per se, but it was the fact that beyond what they taught, it was a case of ‘here be monsters’.

Why is a love of Mathematics so important as a department head, or even as a teacher, for that matter?

I believe that to be truly great as a teacher of Maths, or as the leader of teachers of Mathematics, your passion for the subject drives everything. If we see teaching as something that is purely a means of getting students good grades, then something quiet profound is lost. If the only conversation that we can have with students in terms of the ‘point’ of studying Mathematics is just to get good qualifications, then for me we might as well all pack up and go home.

Yes, good qualifications matter – I am one of those people who will bang the ‘improving life chances’ drum, because I was one of those very students who needed good qualifications to get themselves out of the socio-economic gloom that was council estate life in the 80s and 90s (and still!). But education is not just about grades – for me, education is about giving students the tools and knowledge to appreciate the world around them and make a difference, surely?

Therefore, as a teacher, we need to show how the study of Mathematics connects to the broader context of the subject, and as a leader, motivate our teachers to do so.

So where to begin? Well, what better than encouraging staff to participate in a bit of light reading?

There are a plethora of books out there on Mathematics, it’s history and it’s place in the world. Here’s a small selection of my favourties on the general themes of Maths:

Introducing Mathematics by Sardar, Ravetz, et al is a whistlestop tour of the subject, the historical beginnings, the developments and impacts of the subject it’s it’s future. It’s comic-book in style but well thought-out and accessible to all. It’s also quite funny. I dare anyone not to find Mathematics enlightening and interesting after reading this.

Alex Bellos probably hit the high benchmark in terms of relating Mathematics’ place in the world with Alex’s Adventures In Numberland. By documenting the various applications of Mathematics in a variety contexts of Bellos demonstrates proper real-world Mathematics, and the breadth of opportunities that being fluent in Mathematics offers.

Both Fermat’s Last Theorem and The Code Book by Simon Singh are brilliant. Managing to encapsulate the development of the subject in documenting two key events in (relatively) recent mathematical discoveries (Wiles’ solutions of the aforementioned theorem, RSA encryption).

Finally David Wells’ Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers is quite literally what it says on the title. The explanation of Graham’s Number is particularly excellent.

If you want to introduce more specific problem solving and ‘play’ in the study of Mathematics, then you can’t do much worse than these:

Going back to Wells, You Are A Mathematician puts problem solving and lateral thinking at the fore, so that you can start to make connections between the wider strands of Mathematics study.

Ian Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities similarly offers up a realm of posers to quench one’s thirst for the subject.

Finally, although aimed at children, if Johnny Ball can’t get you excited about Mathematics with Think Of A Number – then I’m stumped.

You could even start a book club, meeting every week to discuss findings from reading these books (seriously – why have I never had this idea before?). What better way than to be collectively inspired?

If you’re not a big reader – shame on you – then there are still a whole host of programmes and multimedia to inspire your mathematical conscious.

Marcus Du Sautoy rules the roost for me in terms of documentaries about the wonders of Mathematics. Painting With Numbers, The Story Of Maths and The Code are all excellent.

Brady Haran’s Numberphile series on YouTube is comprehensive, entertaining, and funny, and presents Mathematics in an accessible and tongue-in-cheek format.

Vi Hart might rub people up the wrong way with her ‘kooky’ style but you can’t argue with the sheer brute relentlessness of her passion for the subject. If you can stick with it, it’ll make you think quite deeply about the creative and flair that can be found through the study of Mathematics.

Again, these videos – especially the Numberphile and Vi Hart videos – could be shared during departmental CPD, so that teachers start to get some creative thoughts igniting.

So, there you go – if you’re struggling to get motivated about Maths – I’ve just listed a whole host of starting points for you to get your juices flowing, so to speak!

Now I’ve talked about the importance of a leader being genuinely interested in Mathematics as a study, the next post in this series will look at how a love for pedagogy puts great leaders head and shoulders above the rest.

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About workedgechaos

Teacher. Critic. Geek.
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One Response to The Art of Leading a Department: Love of your Subject, Part 1

  1. Pingback: The Art of Leading a Department: Love of your Subject, Part 2 | Teaching at the edge of chaos

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