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The Human Side of Mathematics

Published on 30/01/14

Objective, certain, universal… these are commonly used adjectives when describing mathematics. However, behind mathematical discoveries there are people, with their individual strengths and weaknesses and cultural contexts. Studying the mathematics are the students, each with different interests and approaches to learning.
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One of the first questions many prospective parents asks is: “Do you set for Maths?” We do, but this grouping is not about ranking, or reward and punishment. It is about finding the environment in which the particular student learns best and gets the right support, be it frequent opportunity to work with peers, getting a lot of individual help from the teacher, or being given regular challenge problems.

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In order to emphasise the change of focus as to why and how we group pupils in mathematics we have decided to name each set at KS3 (6th to 8th grade) by the first letter of the name of a famous mathematician. The year 8 (7th grade) were tasked with researching and putting together a poster for a mathematician who they thought was worthy of being one of our famous four. There was a large variety of entries, with Cauchy, Euclid, Euler and Kepler making several appearances.

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It was great to see that the pupils had found out about the mathematicians’ lives as well as their mathematical contributions.  They thought about the cultural contexts and barriers to studying mathematics, which they have also been investigating in our Global Outlook course. This is the non-examined course for our year 8 (7th grade) who are guided in the investigation of a wide range of trans-disciplinary topics by the teacher. It is co-taught by sixth form students, making the learning-journey more of an adventure for all involved. One of the most original entries was about Annie Easley, reflecting the pupils’ awareness of gender and race issues in mathematics and science.