Me and maths

I have enjoyed numbers all my life, from the days when I longed to start school and squatted in the garden counting nasturtium seeds – and told my brother I’d counted up to a hundred in bed that morning (when actually I’d counted up to ten, ten times).  I remember seeing the pattern of milk bottles on our doorstep, and realising that I could see there were four by the four-cornered shape that four things make, without having to count them. I remember when the infant school teacher taught us about multiplication by giving each of several children the same number of brightly coloured plastic sticks to hold, and then counting the total number of sticks – and how desperately I longed to  be selected as one of the stick-holders.

I was really lucky. At junior school the headmaster gave our class a special course in geometry and algebra in our final term, so that when we encountered them at secondary school it wouldn’t seem so strange.

At secondary school I had a wonderful maths teacher – Miss Studd – who recognised my ability and encouraged me, and who introduced each new topic so clearly and calmly. We all respected her, and were captivated.

Not every child has such lucky beginnings in their encounter with numbers and maths.

I went on to study Physics at Oxford, and later added a Postgraduate Diploma in Computing. I started out in Medical Physics, running the diagnostic ultrasound service for the Highlands and Islands. But my career took a number of turns, because I was at least as interested in people – and how they think – as I was in Physics or Maths. Eventually I found myself in the Centre for Educational Software at the Open University, designing and programming tutorials for students to study at home. Teaching by computer is a bit like teaching one-to-one, because there is just you and the individual student who is at their computer. Except that because you are separated by time and distance, you have to work really hard to imagine what they will be thinking, what may puzzle or confuse them, and how best you can help them to learn by providing exactly the right things for them to interact with on screen.

Being good at maths doesn’t automatically make you a good teacher of maths. Much of the software I wrote taught  maths and statistics to students who had not excelled in maths at school, and who really struggled with the maths they needed in order to study courses in technology or economics.  I spent many months discussing how best to teach these topics, with subject and educational experts who brought  broad and varied experience to the task. Once the software was written, I would go to summer school and spend weeks observing students as they ran the software, and learning about the difficulties they experienced in studying maths. As  a result, the tutorials I produced were very highly valued by students.

Alongside my full-time role, I was also an OU course tutor for eight years, which meant having a group of students of my own, running tutorials for them, marking their work , and often keeping in close contact by telephone and email.

After ten years, my focus on how people learn and think, both individually and in groups, had broadened, and I made a sideways move into an academic post  in the Systems Group in the Technology Faculty. Amongst many other aspects,  this role involved setting and marking exams, as well as designing and preparing courses.

During this time I also developed a practice as a designer and facilitator of interactive workshops and events for various groups of staff at the OU and elsewhere.

In 2011 I took early retirement from the OU, and now run my own interactive learning business, tutoring maths and designing and facilitating group learning events.

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