MathematicsEducation

Susan Okereke

Susan Okereke

Born in Liverpool, UK • Studied Mathematics and Business Studies at the University of Edinburgh, UK • Highest Degree Master’s in Teaching (MTeach) from the UCL Institute of Education, UK • Lives in London, UK • Occupation maths teacher, maths communicator and education consultant

I love teaching maths! I am a maths communicator and teacher and I passionately believe that numeracy is an essential basic skill that everyone should have – like reading and writing – and every student should leave school competent and confident in it. Sadly, I am aware this is not the case for many students in the UK and I am trying to use my expertise and experience to help improve this situation.

I began to understand the importance maths education plays in society and realised that maths teachers have a crucial role in making the world a fairer place

As a teacher, I have a keen interest in teaching and learning. I believe that teachers should be model learners, so a few years ago, I decided to do a Master’s in Teaching (MTeach) at the UCL Institute of Education. The Master’s looked at what is needed for ‘effective’ learning to take place, exploring the complex relationship between learner, teacher and their environment. It opened my eyes to how education can transform people’s lives, especially maths education. I began to understand the importance maths education plays in society and realised that maths teachers have a crucial role in making the world a fairer place, with recent data by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) showing a direct relationship between wage distribution and numeracy skills.

My Master’s dissertation analysed the effectiveness of a targeted maths intervention on students’ attainment and reflected on the challenges secondary schools face when implementing interventions. Working on my dissertation clarified the fact that I want to use my expertise to bridge the gap between primary, secondary and further education maths learning, supporting all students to feel confident in maths, especially our most disadvantaged students. I believe the key to bridging this gap is to ensure all students have solid basic maths skills and a positive attitude to maths and this starts with good maths teaching.

Completing my Master’s ignited my interest in finding ways to present maths that are accessible and engaging for everyone, especially people who find it challenging. My work as a maths communicator is an extension of this mission.

Maths has a reputation for being boring, difficult and irrelevant to people’s lives and many people are intimidated by the subject because they believe ‘you are either right or wrong’ and that is all that matters. I’m on a mission to challenge this common misconception. Maths is so much more than the final correct answer, it is about seeing patterns, making connections and solving problems, which is an emotional and collaborative process and can be a lot of fun.

Completing my Master’s ignited my interest in finding ways to present maths that are accessible and engaging for everyone, especially people who find it challenging. My work as a maths communicator is an extension of this mission. Over the years I have been involved in a variety of amazing maths events and projects for students, teachers and the general public. Events that strive to bring maths to life for audiences by highlighting the weird and wonderful places maths can be found, which I share on my blog www.DoTheMathsThing.com. Also, the podcast Maths Appeal I co-host with TV personality and fellow maths teacher, Bobby Seagull, presents maths in an accessible way by including maths puzzles and interviews with maths champions from the worlds of tech, entertainment, comedy and education.

Engaging in this range of maths-based endeavours has made me realise I am on a lifelong learning journey with maths education and I hope to take my students, listeners and readers with me as I try to show that maths is everywhere and for everyone.

Posted by HMS in Stories
Dr Ems Lord

Dr Ems Lord

Born in El Adem, Libya • Studied Pure Mathematics at University of Lancaster, UK • Highest Degree PhD in Mathematics Education, University of Cambridge, UK • Lives in Lincolnshire, UK • Occupation Director of NRICH, University of Cambridge

My journey is a story of twists and turns. There never was a grand plan, just a love of maths to help steer the way.

I wasn’t the healthiest of children, I missed more school days than I ever managed to attend. It would have been easy to fall behind in my studies, but my headteacher had different ideas. Textbooks appeared in my home and my mum was roped in as my teacher. Perhaps rather frustratingly for her at times, my curiosity was never satisfied; I always wanted to try different ways of doing things. I loved playing games, but also inventing new maths games too! I’d even collect the numbered cardboard doors off my advent calendar to use in them in my latest creation.  Numbers had a special place in my life from a very early age.

Having decided that maths was the subject I wanted to study at university, the transition from school to university maths was not as straightforward as I hoped; coming from an all-girls school, it was a shock to find myself on a course dominated by boys. I’d never really associated maths as a ‘boys thing’ until that point. Maths had always been something I just enjoyed doing, but perhaps not everyone enjoyed the same opportunities as I had growing up.

Wednesday afternoons at University  were spent on the sports field or at a local teaching college. Although I love sport, my curiosity meant that I eventually tagged along with the teaching group one day – and never turned back! Our tutor challenged everyone to subtract two numbers and record our method – not exactly a tough challenge for soon-to-be maths graduates but I soon discovered that I was the only person in the room to use my chosen approach, and there were two or three other methods in general use around the room. When we were asked to explain our approaches, there was a discussion about ‘milk bottles on doorsteps’ which totally confused me. What did milk bottles have to do with subtraction?  Turns out that the ‘milk bottles’ were place value jottings. No wonder so many people complain that they find maths confusing!

[…] through the college session I realised that my ongoing love for investigating different approaches could be usefully applied to teaching. If someone was struggling or could not understand an approach, I could perhaps suggest another way which might work for them and explain it too.

At the time of that college visit, I was focusing on my thesis exploring the different ways mathematicians had proved the Pythagoras Theorem, and through the college session I realised that my ongoing love for investigating different approaches could be usefully applied to teaching. If someone was struggling or could not understand an approach, I could perhaps suggest another way which might work for them and explain it too (without referring to milk bottles). And, as a female mathematician, perhaps I could be a role model too. Suddenly all the pieces fell into place and I applied for teacher training.

[…] I quickly discovered that hardly any primary schools had a maths graduate on their staff and creativity was often being stifled by a lack of confidence and subject knowledge.

As a maths graduate, I opted for a secondary teacher programme which came with a generous grant for signing-up to teach a shortage subject. Tutors required trainees to spend their first fortnight in a primary school, I quickly discovered that hardly any primary schools had a maths graduate on their staff and creativity was often being stifled by a lack of confidence and subject knowledge. Even though it meant losing my ‘welcome’ grant, I switched to a primary course and I’ve never looked back. Primary teachers are incredibly hard-working individuals who need to cover a wide range of subjects and inspire their charges all day, every day. They are amazing people. I soon found myself leading maths in my school and supporting the teaching of maths in other schools nearby by sharing useful resources. At that time, I became an advocate for the types of maths resources designed by NRICH which challenge and engage young learners.

After joining my local authority’s maths team, I helped to set up schools’ maths competitions and lead parental engagement events – opportunities for families to enjoy problem-solving and rethink commonly-held negative views about maths. By volunteering to lead maths masterclasses introducing some of my favourite undergraduate classes such as topology and networks, I hoped I could also act as a role model for younger female students. Ever curious, I began reading more widely about maths education and signed up for my Masters and later my PhD at Cambridge (where I investigated different approaches to calculation, of course!). Today, my love of maths means that I get to work in one of the world’s finest maths departments at the University of Cambridge, helping to support school teachers to inspire future mathematicians and researching ways to increase diversity in my chosen subject as the Director of NRICH – a project which had inspired my classroom teaching. It’s such a privilege working with the NRICH team, and we’ve got exciting plans for the future. Watch this space!

Posted by HMS in Stories