Never been to MathsConf? Neither had I…

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

As a relative newcomer to the Complete Mathematics team, I’d watched the build-up to MathsConf27 from afar (well, the other side of the office) for several weeks and experienced the virtual MathsConfMini in September. I was therefore very aware of the fact that for Complete Mathematics, MathsConfs are an organisational Everest. From my interaction with MathsConfMini, I also knew just how much the team invested in making sure that the workshops were extremely high quality and ran as seamlessly as possible. With a 10-year background in teaching myself, I was hugely impressed by their dedication to creating a collegiate, accessible and massively comprehensive CPD event for maths teachers across the country.

However, whilst I had all of the theory, what would it be like in practice?

Well — in practice, it started with me behind the wheel at 6.45am on a Saturday morning. As I peered blearily ahead, I thought of all the places I knew other MathsConf27 attendees were travelling from and felt immediately abashed – if they could take on the journey from as far afield as Brussels and Birmingham, then I could manage the Blackwall Tunnel.

Starter Activities

Not long after arriving, the atmosphere began to take on a real buzz. Everybody, it seemed, felt excited to be doing this again in-person. Especially given that in-person, among other things, meant proceeding with what I like to refer to as the ultimate ‘comforting conference trio’: a real, paper copy of the day’s events in one hand, a croissant in the other, and a Complete Mathematics tote bag over your shoulder.You don’t get this on Zoom, I thought to myself, as I surreptitiously sipped my second coffee in ten minutes (well, it was an early start).

Your adrenaline levels as a first-timer are very much dictated by whether or not you are also presenting a workshop, but either way, the Complete Mathematics team are there to greet and guide you through the event from the very beginning. Your welcome pack includes a comprehensive programme of events for the day, with a map of the venue, to ensure you can navigate your way around as smoothly as possible. Be sure to visit the refreshments before embarking on the day, in order to refuel from your journey and chat to like-minded attendees. It’s also very worth taking a moment to speak to the team from AQA, and take advantage of the opportunity to ask any of those exam board related questions you might have. Also, don’t forget to visit the wide range of exhibitors in order to see what they have on offer, as well as collect your clues for the Treasure Hunt! If you are presenting, then someone from the team will take you to your room, and make sure it is set up as you would like, so you feel as comfortable as possible in advance of your workshop. You will also get a chance to do all of the above during the lunch break – they’re there for you all day!

In his opening presentation, which provided invaluable guidance on the current exams landscape, Andrew Taylor from AQA acknowledged the collective feeling by kindly noting that he felt slightly ‘nervous’ due to the amount of ‘real people in a real room’. From the morning’s interactions, I knew that this feeling was also shared by some of the workshop leaders, whether this was their first time at MathsConf or not. I felt it myself too: simply not knowing exactly what to expect, and not having the facility to turn the camera off on a Zoom call whilst I collected myself, was enough to get the adrenaline going.

Subsequently, Mark McCourt’s rousing presentation further added to the sense of unity in the room, as he reminded everyone about one of the key facets of the day: the ability to talk and network with each other, and the power that could come about as a result of the ongoing communication and support between the 350,000 maths teachers nationwide. Mark also introduced the newest offering from Complete Mathematics — TUTOR — to rapturous applause, sparking the catalyst for a huge amount of interest throughout the rest of the day in a platform — and movement — that we are hugely excited about.

Main Activities

As a member of the Complete Mathematics team, I’d been privy to the growing menu of workshops over the preceding weeks and had continued to be impressed by the sheer variety of choices on offer. There were offerings for maths teachers of every level of experience, from niche interests to wide-reaching pedagogical concepts. I’d been assigned to a particular room for the morning’s sessions, and was excited that the schedule would include a combination of ideas with which I was both familiar and unfamiliar: a great mix.

Mathematical Minds Beyond the Curriculum

First up was Jennifer Obaditch from AQA with her workshop on the EPQ. Having been an EPQ coordinator during my time as a teacher, and found it exciting but challenging at times, I was looking forward to Jennifer’s insight. She reminded us of the intrinsic value of the EPQ to a KS5 pupil – one who is currently studying in a climate of very content-rich A Levels, assessed at the end of two-year period – who won’t have necessarily amassed the wider study/interview/research skills they will need to flourish at university.

Furthermore, and even more notably, was the way in which Jennifer shone a light on a reality of the EPQ that I had certainly experienced myself (and almost definitely not questioned as much as I should have done) regarding the strong Humanities/English drive and frame of reference that often either delivers the skills, or surrounds the pupil projects. It was fascinating to be shown a whole host of EPQ project titles that had come from a mathematical perspective, and understand the ways in which the non-essay, ‘artefact’ option could be the perfect outcome for a pupil wanting to apply their mathematical knowledge to a more practical project. Having invested in lessons fairly recently, I for one would love to know exactly ‘how dimples affect the aerodynamic drag of a golf ball’— they just don’t teach you that at the driving range! Those in the room were certainly inspired by the prospect that EPQ projects could be opportunities for pupils with a strong interest in maths to explore it in an exciting, self-led, ‘real world’ way, beyond the confines of the classroom.

Teaching with Technology

Depending on when you trained, and your own personal philosophies on such controversial matters as: ‘Real Books vs Kindles’ and ‘Filofaxes vs The Calendar App on your Smartphone’, your feelings about incorporating technology into your teaching may be hugely positive, negative, or somewhere in between. No doubt over the past few years you have had an experience with technology that may well have been, shall we say, less than favourable.

However, if the past couple of years have taught us anything, it’s that now is the time to embrace what technology can do for teaching and learning like never before. For me, this workshop was the one where I felt on the backfoot from the start — not quite a filofax aficionado, but certainly someone who prefers a real book over a kindle. No fear though, as it was being run by the inimitable duo: Douglas Butler and Mark Hatsell (one of our very own developers at Complete Mathematics). Having met by chance at their local sailing club, they guided me through the rough seas of my own ignorance expertly, as they demonstrated the possibilities of their quite frankly genius creation: Autograph.

With their first Windows version released in 2001, they were celebrating the 20th anniversary of what has become the most popular and widely used dynamic maths application in UK schools. Having grown from 2D graphing and coordinate geometry, Douglas and Mark have worked on adding more features, and Autograph now includes Statistics, 3D graphing/coordinate geometry and Complex Numbers. Their session walked us through how to use the variety of features to create not only visual, but seemingly ‘alive’ representations of the above concepts. The workshop was an invaluable opportunity to play around with the features and understand more about how this (free!) resource could be so easily slotted into your teaching practice, to the huge benefit of your pupils’ understanding. Using Autograph is such a quick technological win — you can quite literally mesmerise your pupils with maths!

Learning from the Literature

At this point, given the new subheading and my heavy reliance on alliteration throughout this blog, it seems right to reveal that whilst I’ve been a teacher and head of department for 10 years, my subject specialism is English — not maths. Imposter alert! I know what you’re thinking — no wonder she was clueless in the Autograph workshop.

Therefore, when it came to Rhiannon Rainbow and Peter Mattock’s workshop on running a pedagogical book club, I felt I was sailing on slightly calmer waters. Rhiannon explained the (extremely appealing) format of the events: open to all, with manageable extracts from a wide variety of the latest educational research, many of which come with an audiobook for ultimate ease of access. With a member each time responsible for writing up the ‘takeaway’ from each session (or illustrating it beautifully!) Rhiannon explained how the book club took a truly inclusive and accessible approach — helpful for teachers for whom confidence with educational literary texts might be on the lower side.

In recent times, the book club had gained such ground that the authors of the texts themselves had also attended — adding an extra depth and dimension to the conversation. Indeed, Peter Mattock’s initiation of a discussion about his recent book, Visible Maths, created a discernible buzz in the room, and his past comments on the reciprocity of the feedback process summed up the mutual benefits of the book club, as he described how it was ‘priceless as an author to hear real-time feedback on the content.’

What I didn’t expect however, was for Rhiannon to drop in the name of a writer I was very familiar with, from my own teacher training some 11 years ago — David Didau. David is a key figure in the world of English teaching, and I had spent many a seminar and meeting discussing his ideas about pedagogy and teaching approaches in English over the last decade. This is where this workshop became really transformative. As Rhiannon extolled and evidenced the benefits of branching out beyond just maths research, a small seedling that had taken root in my mind since starting at Complete Mathematics began to sprout leaves: the untapped value of two core subjects sharing pedagogical approaches and insights was potentially huge.

A Connected and Cohesive Curriculum

Having been given the permission to be my authentic English teacher-self by Rhiannon, and by a passing comment from an innocent bystander who claimed that I ‘seemed like an English teacher’ (what does that even mean?!) I was intrigued as to what the afternoon’s workshops would bring, and whether they would enhance the sparks of synthesis between two supposedly binary subjects that had begun to form in my mind.

Jo Morgan’s session after lunch, ‘Curriculum Sequencing’, constituted the perfect continuation, as she explicitly compared the English and Maths curriculums in terms of the sense of choice (or lack thereof) when it came to choosing the content to actually teach. That in itself was a thought that had never occurred to me, and one which when broken down by Jo, I found supremely useful — to the extent that a sort of Venn diagram started to form in my mind, where I realised that despite blatantly obvious differences, there were also some strong opportunities where the subjects overlapped.

With less choice on content in maths, Jo focused on what maths teachers could control: sequencing, pedagogy, resources, methods and manipulatives. For me, the focus on sequencing and ordering the curriculum really resonated; the importance of creating a perfectly balanced, interconnected jigsaw, which focused on prerequisite skills and seamless building of knowledge over time. From my short time at Complete Mathematics, I knew this was a fundamental foundation of their products, and had been built directly into both CLASSROOM and the recently launched TUTOR. However, I hadn’t really considered it properly in relation to my own subject area, and made such an explicit connection between the higher order principles of curriculum design that would benefit pupils hugely in both English and maths — two core subjects that we know can greatly impact a child’s options and prospects later on in life.

There’s Narrative in the Numbers

With my mind awhirl, I was looking forward to Mark McCourt’s workshop, ‘Limitless’, where he would build on what he’d touched upon earlier in the day: the premise that all pupils could progress and succeed in mathematics, given equal access to teaching practices which focus on mastery and consistency, and not low expectations or the ‘conveyor belt’ approach.

Having seen these values in practice, in the fabric of the company and design of the products, I found this portion of Mark’s presentation truly — sorry in advance Mark — inspirational. What came next however, set off fireworks in my brain.

Mark was explaining a teaching point, and discussing scenarios around taking a mastery approach to quizzing pupils on their learning, when I heard two words that were part of my everyday professional vernacular: metaphor and narrative. In role as a teacher who hadn’t managed to communicate the maths learning point to its fullest extent, Mark said: ‘I haven’t found the story for them to receive this meaning.’This is why he calls it ‘mathematical literacy’, I thought to myself incredulously, as I heard English teachers all around the country stand and applaud. Was this the epitome of the overlap between the subjects? Was this why in essence, good maths pedagogical theory could help influence good English practice, and vice versa? For many years I’ve been able to see the maths in English —the structure and sequences of sentences, paragraphs and whole stories are in themselves, a beautiful kind of equation. But English in maths, on an overarching, pedagogically-principled level, was really new to me.

The Plenary

As the day drew to a close — I reflected on what I had learnt, like any good pupil. Given my subject specialism, I’d had my eye on Jenny Hill-Parker’s Literacy in Mathematics workshop for some weeks (sorry to have missed you, Jenny!) but in the end was assigned to supervise workshops. What I realised was that it was no fortuitous coincidence that I, as a non-maths specialist, had not only improved my knowledge of maths pedagogical content, but that actually, so much of what I had experienced during the day bore close relation to, and could certainly enhance, my experience of being a practitioner in what is generally considered to be a subject which is totally at odds with maths. In school, we often barely have time to deep dive with our own departments, let alone others. We all know the benefits of cross-curricular collaboration — but what about cross-core collaboration?

Whether you’re a newbie like me, or a seasoned pro, join us for our next MathsConf, and take your pick from an amazing array of top quality maths CPD! Dates for your diaries (or filofaxes) are: Saturday 12th March 2022 for #MathsConf28, our next in-person conference! See you there!

Buy your tickets here:


• Andrew Taylor and Jennifer Obaditch AQA @AQA
• AQA Maths @AQAMaths

• Mark McCourt @EmathsUK

• Douglas Butler @douglasbutler1 and Mark Hatsell @autographmaths

• Rhiannon Rainbow @Noni_Rainbow

• Peter Mattock @MrMattock

• Jo Morgan @mathsjem

• Jenny Hill-Parker @JennyHillParker

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