Maths and History

Not too long ago, I took a detour back to a previous role and read a book on teaching for teachers. Making School Maths Engaging: The Maths inside Project by Anne Prescott, Mary Coupland, Marco Angelini and Sandra Schuck. The authors are all in Australia and working together as educationalists and mathematicians they explored how to make maths accessible and engaging having noticed a decline in the take up of maths as a school subject. For us, in South Africa in the late 20th century, it was compulsory to have maths to Matric or A Level equivalent if we wanted to go to university, irrespective of what you planned to study. What a good idea in retrospect as maths featured in so much, from the obvious in Economics to statistics in Sociology and Psychology and with hindsight, there’s the logic one develops through problem-solving which impacts on Philosophy, History and Law, amongst other subjects.

The concern though is that fewer people are engaged in studying maths or mathematics which is of concern as skills and knowledge is being lost. Working on a teaching programme in Tanzania brought this home very strongly where teachers got frustrated and turned to rote learning as they did not understand what they were teaching. We were looking at ways to overcome this and the project is now being implemented in Rwanda. We had similar challenges with teaching in the UK, although then not to the extreme it might now be – preparing students for higher education while meeting business needs. So, it seems the issue the Australians have been trying to deal with is not unique. It’s global.

Taking place over a number of years (yippee – it was not a simple 3 year project to fix the world of education), the authors gathered and processed evidence, listened to pupils, students and teachers, engaged with subject experts, produced resources and continued to monitor, evaluate and collect evidence. The results are collated in this book which focuses on 3 case studies: my favourite being the tracking of bees (Bees with Backpacks) to see how they communicate with the hive… sadly the book doesn’t say how they managed to put small enough tracking devices onto individual bees. There is also a case study on Stargazing and another on 3D. It’s worth looking at the publisher’s website as there are links to resources and other references which you wouldn’t get on other sites. There are also related downloads on Academia and there’s the institution’s website with all the videos etc.

Bottom line, if you haven’t yet worked it out, is that I was rather taken with this book – it might be a bit academic and scientific for some but the message is clear – maths is important and there are ways to make it relevant to everyday life within the curriculum (and questions whether the curriculum – across the globe – actually needs rethinking). Now to the link with history…

My eureka moment as an historian needing or using maths was a module on my MA in 20th century history taught by Tony Gorst at Westminster University. Back in 1996/7 he gave us a table of British politicians and the universities they’d studied at along with the degree they’d undertaken. The unit was post 1945 politics (incl Suez). For someone recently arrived from the ‘colonies’, this was rather an eye-opener on many fronts but it was only when I started teaching and we needed to embed maths, English and IT into all aspects of the curriculum that I really saw the value of Tony’s source analysis exercises. The maths aspect was secondary, no fuss was made about the subject, but it was there and integrated seamlessly into what we were looking at. Since then, maths regularly features in my work as an historian – have you seen the tables and info from the Pike report on the Great War in Africa website? Trying to reconcile numbers of dead and buried in Africa as part of the CWGC investigation into non-commemoration and more recently economic issues in South Africa during World War 1.

Now, I don’t expect maths teachers and researchers to make specific resources on historical topics, but I do support initiatives to make maths more accessible and less daunting for students. And for this, Making School Maths Engaging: The Maths inside Project by Anne Prescott, Mary Coupland, Marco Angelini and Sandra Schuck is most definitely worth exploring.