Carol Lyon has held a number of posts in education including Education Support Officer (Numeracy and Mathematics), Schools and Learning Support Officer (STEM) and Numeracy Lead, Tay Regional Improvement Collaborative. She joined the Scottish Mathematical Council in 2015 and, in July 2019, became its first female Chair.
Reading my biography, you could be forgiven for thinking that I’m some sort of maths whizz… I’m not. I’m a retired educator who cares passionately about supporting all teachers to develop the skills and confidence that will help them teach maths in creative and interesting ways; ways that engage and enthuse pupils and which promote the relevance of maths to the world of work. My own school experience of maths was far removed from this. I got by in primary school well enough. I was good at remembering facts and procedures, without truly understanding them, and prided myself on being in the ‘top group’. At secondary school I listened attentively whilst teachers (mostly male) made meaningless squiggles on a blackboard which I passively replicated in a jotter. I daren’t raise my hand for fear of ridicule and talking to peers was forbidden. Gradually, my grades began to slip as the demands on my memory simply became too great but, fortunately, I somehow remembered the meaningless squiggles long enough to complete the exam and scraped through Higher Maths at the second attempt.
When I became a primary teacher, I was determined that my pupils would have a somewhat different experience. Conscious of the gender bias I had experienced (those predominantly male teachers did seem to have higher expectations of the boys), I conducted my own research, engaged in post-graduate study and did everything I could to instil confidence and an enthusiasm for maths in all of my pupils. I ran workshops for parents and challenged comments from mothers such as, ‘I do the reading homework and leave the maths to his/her dad’ or ‘I tell her it doesn’t matter; I was hopeless at maths too’ and chastised pupils who teased one Primary 7 girl for being particularly able at maths (thankfully, she rose above the jibes and is now a successful design engineer with a prestigious car manufacturer!).
My work in mathematics learning and teaching led to my first substantive post with the local education authority and was my first experience of working across both primary and secondary schools. Looking back on my first meeting with the eight then Principal Teachers of Mathematics (two women, six men) I do recall a warm welcome, albeit tinged with a hint of scepticism. Happily, my involvement in national working groups, and in particular my association with the Scottish Mathematical Council, has enhanced my standing with secondary colleagues and I now enjoy positive working relationships with many.
There is a widely held view (backed up by countless studies) that suggests adults rarely use much of the mathematics they were taught at school. In “Thinking like an Engineer. Implications for the education system” (2014) Lucas, Hanson and Claxton argue that equipping our children and young people with an appropriate skills-set, for the 21st century workplace, requires a greater focus on developing ‘mathematical habits of mind’ at the heart of which lies visualising, flexibility and creative problem-solving. The STEM subjects provide excellent opportunities for the application of numeracy and mathematical skills in real-world situations, yet all too often these opportunities are missed by busy teachers under pressure to drive through subject specific content.
The Scottish Mathematical Council is a charitable organisation with members from all educational sectors and industry. The Council’s key objectives are to foster and improve mathematical education at all levels, and to encourage the advancement and application of mathematics throughout Scotland. In addition to supporting teachers’ professional learning, an important aim of the Council is to nurture an enthusiasm for, and enjoyment of, mathematics among Scotland’s children and young people. Indeed, there has been much recent activity around changing public attitudes towards mathematics. The publication of Making Maths Count: Transforming Scotland into a Maths Positive Nation (Scottish Government 2016) prompted the introduction of Maths Week Scotland, a week in which mathematics is promoted and celebrated. The publication of a STEM Education and Training Strategy for Scotland, and the appointment of national Gender Balance Improvement Officers, further highlights the government’s commitment to addressing the skills shortage in STEM and encouraging more girls to choose STEM-related careers.
I firmly believe that any change in policy must begin in the classroom if it is to have long-term impact. It requires teachers who are open to new ways of working; teachers who recognise the need to teach concepts, not just procedures, and who provide pupils with ample opportunities to work collaboratively to solve real problems; teachers who value diversity and creative thinking. It requires school leaders to review programmes, to make space for high quality professional learning that equips staff to teach mathematics in exciting and innovative ways and to consider how female role models might support Careers Education. Perhaps then every week can be a Maths Week Scotland.