Introducing MathsCity. 

This blog post was written by Staff Tutor and Senior mathematics lecturer Katie Chicot. 

MathsCity marks a first, major step towards creating a first National Mathematics Discovery Centre for the UK. MathsCity opened to the public on 4th October. For more details visit

MathsWorld UK:

MathsWorldUK is an educational charity working to advance the public understanding of mathematics so that everyone, regardless of age and background, can access and delight in the fun and power of maths. The mission, ultimately, is to create in Leeds, by 2028, the UK’s first Mathematics Discovery Centre, a world-class visitor attraction celebrating the maths at the heart of the patterns and structures of our world. MathsWorldUK is led by Open University staff tutor Dr Katie Chicot

A cultural intervention

We know that a person’s culture is having the strongest impact on their study choices. A cultural intervention is needed to address the UK’s lack of relationship with or culture of maths.

MathsCity will act as a hub for a wider programme including maths activity clubs, evening talks and holiday activities. It will provide a valuable space for ongoing dialogue with young people and communities across the region, as we engage them in developing ideas and content for a major new discovery centre celebrating every aspect of mathematics.


This October we launched MathsCity ( a dynamic, interactive maths experience for children and families in a large unit in Trinity Leeds shopping centre.

MathsCity offers exciting maths experiences and challenges, designed as an immersive, exploratory ‘journey’ for a family audience and supported by skilled facilitators.

The aims of MathsCity are:

  • Over our first year of operation (October 2021 – September 2022), to reach 17,000+ people of all ages, backgrounds and cultures with inspiring activities, where they experience maths as playful, exciting and accessible
  • To build young people’s skills, confidence and interest in mathematics, particularly targeting those who are disadvantaged or excluded from such informal learning opportunities

Between 5th October and 20th December, we had 2381 general public visits and 464 school pupils visit MathsCity. The MathsCity feedback below has been posted on social media, either in tagged posts, comments, or reviews:

“We decided on the spur of the moment to book one last thing during the October half-term and we are so pleased we did. The staff were helpful, friendly and really kind. They took notice of the interests of them both. The children found it easy to talk to any of them and ask any questions they had. We spent over an hour and twenty minutes there and it was talked about all day. Would recommend it to anyone who wants to try something different. Hopefully this can become a bigger space one day!”

“Would highly recommend MathsCity – in particular, it is a great place to visit with people of all different ages. We loved it as adults, but we could see everyone from teenagers to toddlers having a brilliant time. A perfect choice if you have lots of different age groups in your party. We will definitely be returning soon!”

“Absolutely amazing place, would highly recommend to all ages.”

“Amazing few hours out, suitable for all. Great learning experience.”

“Wow!! What a place MathsCity is, in Trinity Leeds. We went today and spent 90 minutes doing all sorts of puzzles and learning through play. Our children were in their element and found it mentally stimulating, and whilst some bits were too hard, there was plenty to keep them entertained. There are around 30 puzzles and experiments for big and old to play on and the best thing is that if you don’t have a child and/or you don’t want to bring them, it is suitable for grownups too!!”

“What an amazing place and such a brilliant idea. We spent ages here, the perfect example of how learning can be fun.”

MathsCity was on all the regional news channels in a maths piece which is posted on the MathsCity Facebook page:

You can also get a feel for the centre via a great video made by a visitor:



Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

Mathematics education assignments: working with learners during the pandemic

There has been so much change over the past year, especially in educational settings. At the Open University we know about distance and remote learning – it’s been happening for over 50 years! But even those students who did not normally have in-person exams or tutorials were still impacted in some way by the lockdown. We wanted to give an update on some of the things we put in place to ensure students could continue their studies during the pandemic.

At the end of March last year, students were preparing to begin their studies for two of our maths education modules that start in April: ME625 Developing Algebraic Thinking and ME626 Developing Thinking in Statistics. A key part of these modules is to work with a learner, and this is the basis for three out of four of the assessments. Working with learners means students on these modules must plan tasks, analyse learners’ work, and reflect on what the next steps could be. Analysing learners’ work involves recognising mathematical thinking and using ideas and frameworks from the module to discuss the mathematical activity. These are considerations that students consider when studying mathematics education modules under normal circumstances. But then there was March 2020…

The learners that OU maths education students work with can be of any age, with any level of previous maths experience. They can be adult friends or family members or school-age learners that the student lives with or knows. Some of our maths education students work in schools themselves and will often work with learners at the school as part of their assignments. So, when schools closed to non-key-worker children, and social distancing measures were put in place, there was the potential for some students to be unable to successfully complete their assignments. When we realised this would be the case, we put our heads together (remotely) to come up with a solution that would afford students the opportunity to analyse and reflect on a learner’s work in an authentic setting, but without the need to interact with them face-to-face. There were two options for those students who could not work with a learner in their household bubble:

  • Work remotely with a learner, via video conference or telephone
  • Complete an alternative assignment that does not require the need to work with a learner.

Last year there was still a significant number of people who were not familiar with using video conferencing software, especially to teach and learn with! We created some supporting videos that demonstrated how students could work with a learner and, importantly, suggestions for viewing and saving learners’ work so that it can be annotated and analysed as part of the assignment. These included sharing a whiteboard, creating a homemade visualiser, annotating on a shared screen and options for working asynchronously (not ‘live’). These supporting videos are available within the ‘Resources’ area of the maths education modules.

The second option was a bit trickier. Where there was no possibility of working with a learner in person or remotely, we needed to provide an alternative assignment that could be marked using the same assessment criteria as the original, and that was equivalent in terms of difficulty.  Across all the assignments that include working with a learner, a common element is writing a reflective account of the learners’ work. In doing so, students can demonstrate their ability to evaluate and reflect on the ways learners responded to a particular task, paying attention to module ideas and frameworks such as specialising and generalising, freedom and constraint and doing and undoing. This analysis is a key area of the assignments and is possible even where the student has not worked with learners directly, provided that the task and learner work is suitable.

An extract from an alternative assignment for ME626

We developed an alternative assignment that afforded students the opportunity for this rich discussion by creating plausible accounts of learners’ work. These accounts were based on our knowledge of likely student and learner interactions on a task, as summarised and analysed in previous assignments. In these accounts we compiled and created dialogue and mathematical working that was messy, contained errors, was sometimes aimless or boring but included evidence of mathematical thinking.

Of course, this alternative has some drawbacks; there is little choice of tasks for students, so there is less flexibility about which module frameworks to write about. We would always recommend working with a real learner where possible. Learner interaction provides the opportunity for a rich discussion about the key ideas from the modules. The authenticity of working with a real learner can prompt students to recognise mathematical thinking that might not exist in an artificial context. The act of choosing and adapting a task with these module frameworks in mind is also pertinent to the assignments; a task that does not allow for generalising, for example, would not be a good choice if the assignment needs to include a discussion of specialising and generalising – something we considered when creating the alternative assignments. Students are also asked to annotate their learners’ work to provide evidence to support the discussion, and so tasks need to allow for learners to produce some work, rather than be wholly verbal.  Working with learners directly (either in person or remotely) is also good practice for those students who want to work in an educational setting.

In total, a handful of students in each module have made use of the alternative assignments. We are certainly glad we were able to provide an alternative for those students; it is the right thing to do to ensure all students have fair access and support for assignments, and it made us look back on past assignments and reflect again on the benefits of working with learners.

Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

External engagement during the pandemic

Last September I came back from maternity leave, mid pandemic, to reclaim my role as external engagement lead for the school of mathematics and statistics. I had particularly missed this aspect of my job: organising events with our academics, hosting school visits on campus, interacting with members of the public at national science fairs, and generally sharing a love of mathematics. As you can imagine, however, the role I returned to was somewhat different to the one I had left. As a school, we faced the challenge of facilitating our existing external engagement programme within the constraints of the “new normal”.

Working at the Open University, we are no strangers to working with students online, in fact all our mathematics education modules are delivered online with tutorials running through Adobe Connect software. As a university, we are experienced facilitators of online learning and this extends to our public engagement offerings, including our free Open Learn website (, our involvement in BBC productions, and sharing live broadcasts of public lectures and workshops through our Youtube and Facebook live channels, allowing us to reach a national (and sometimes international) audience.

Despite this strong online presence, within the school of mathematics and statistics we are proud to offer free face to face outreach activities for school pupils in the areas surrounding our campus. Like many other universities, we feel a strong sense of duty to provide outreach for local school students, encouraging them to take an interest in mathematics beyond compulsory education. Our offerings include our annual Mathematics Christmas lecture, attracting around 400 sixth form pupils and their teachers to our Milton Keynes campus, a six-week mathematics masterclass series for year 9 students every year at Bletchley Park, and hosting the Enigma Maths hub “Welcome to your mathematics A-level” conference, for year 11 students who are about to embark on their sixth form mathematics.

We offer these events to support local pupils in developing their interests in mathematics through exposing them to interesting topics outside of the normal mathematics curriculum. We invite speakers from varied professional backgrounds, from career mathematicians to experts in industry, so the pupils can learn about different career paths and, more importantly, be inspired. These events also give attendees the opportunity to meet pupils from other schools who have similar interests in mathematics, giving them the chance to collaborate and to develop their confidence in exploring and discussing mathematics in an informal setting.

This year, like schools, colleges and traditional universities, we have had to think creatively about how we could offer these face-to-face events through online platforms. We still wanted to offer pupils the same opportunities: to explore interesting topics outside of their curriculum, to hear from experts in different fields, and to work with other pupils to explore and discuss mathematics, whilst adhering to countrywide restrictions.

So how did it work? 

Our outreach events since March 2020

Below you will be able to find links to all our recent events which took place online. We are pleased to be able to offer these recordings as resources to anyone who is interested.

Maths Week Scotland

We offered four interactive workshops as part of Maths Week Scotland, covering topics from Number Theory to Code breaking, Exponential growth to the Butterfly effect.

Ian Short’s session “Navigating by numbers” covered a range of frieze patterns.

The Mathematics Education Team (Sue Forsythe, Rebecca Rosenberg and Cathy Smith) delivered a session on “Growing Exponentially”, looking at the famous coins on a chessboard problem, how children grow and of course the exponential grow of the Covid-19

Marc Pradas demonstrated chaos theory using his specially designed double pendulum model as part of his session “Chaos theory and the butterfly effect”.

Katie Chicot and Andrew Potter’s session on Code breaking and cryptography included a range of historic codes from the ancient Greek Polybius square, to a final frequency analysis challenge. Participants were challenged to compete against the clock (and each other) to decipher codes.

Missed these sessions? No problem! One of the best things about our outreach being online at the moment, is that we can record our talks and workshops. You can watch (and play along) with all of our “Maths Week Scotland” sessions here:

*Please note that the interactivities will not be live but you can still have a go at all the challenges, as the solutions are revealed in each recording.

Ask the experts!

Several of our academics offered interactive talks on topics relating to the current pandemic. You can watch these sessions (and other STEM experts) here:

In Ask the experts: “Tracking how a virus mutates” OU academic Dr Cathy Smith, and guest speaker Dr Nick Goldman, spoke about the way Covid-19 has mutated.

In Ask the experts: “Trusting statistics in the news” with Dr Kaustubh Adhikari, Dr Katie Chicot and Emeritus Professor Kevin McConway, the academic gave expert tips on how to understand statistics in the news, and when to trust what is being published.

Events coming up!

Mathematics masterclasses for year 9 students

We are currently in the middle of our Year 9 masterclass series, with over 100 school students in attendance each week, covering topics from Topology to Islamic Geometry.

British Science Week (5th to 14th March)

The dates of our sessions are being finalised but our planned sessions are:

  • Chaos Theory and the butterfly effect with Dr Marc Pradas, linking to our applied mathematics modules
  • Surprising statistics with Dr Kaustubh Adhikari, linking to our statistics modules
  • Magic mathematics with Charlotte Webb and Rebecca Rosenberg, using ideas from our mathematics education modules

All sessions will be broadcast through the Open University STEM Youtube channel, here:

So, what has it been like delivering outreach during a pandemic?

I spoke with colleagues who have been involved in online outreach activities during the pandemic about their experiences. Their responses are summarised below:

Were there any advantages to running events online?

The major advantages for me were fact that we were able to reach a much wider audience, and the fact that we were able to use our MK-based colleagues more easily for events around the country, not just around MK.”

We have been extremely pleased to welcome school students, adults and families who may not be able to attend our face to face sessions. Our year 9 masterclasses, normally run at Bletchley Park and at Bradford University, have attracted over 100 students each week and we have really enjoyed being able to spread our love of mathematics even more widely.

The fact that we could record the sessions means that they are there on YouTube and we can continually reuse them by directed people to them on social media”.

What worked well in online outreach events?

“I had a web camera on my laptop pointing at my face. I also had a movable camera pointing down at my desk. In Zoom and other video conferencing things you can switch between the two cameras at a click of a button. That worked well”.

Many speakers spoke about varying the sessions, for example using short video clips alongside interactivities, rather than just slides in order to keep audiences engaged.

We used (a quiz app) which really seemed to work well. I also think it worked well to give the participants a challenge to try at home and to post up on social media. This allowed the learning to continue outside of the session itself”.

Using interactive software meant that participants could interact in real time, sending in answers anonymously. This helped generate a competition element in some of the sessions and graphs of polls were shared in others. The added advantage of anonymity allowed participants to interact in the sessions without fear of getting it wrong.

Most colleagues commented that online sessions needed to be shorter than face to faces ones, since it can be harder to concentrate on a screen for an extended period of time.

Working with another person was also referred to by all the speakers as this allows for a natural “lively” conversation but also any technical support, e.g. checking on the chat box.

“Using break out rooms allowed conversation between participants in smaller groups (often still only in the chat box)”

What were the challenges or limitations of presenting external engagement online?

In most of our sessions, the chat box was utilised far more than participant videos or microphones. As an OU tutor I find this is the case with our students as well, so was not surprised to hear this. Participants appear to feel more comfortable answering through text. Some saw this is a challenge, other speakers were OK with this as a form of interaction.

For interactiveness, I find online seriously limiting. I can’t see what the listeners are up to. I would like to get them building models, experimenting. Most don’t want to put their cameras on and share. Really changes the dynamic”.

When running our masterclasses, for example, one of the aims is to connect students with other likeminded students from other schools. In an online environment it is difficult for participants to communicate with each other if not using break out rooms. Break out rooms have safeguarding issues associated with them if working with school students and many of our speakers chose not to use them.

In a face to face session, presenters can adapt based in how the participants respond to questions or if further explanation is needed. It was a challenge for many of our presenters to judge where the group was up to when working on some of the tasks or how they were responding. Though interactive tools gave some indication of how many people were responding and if they got the answers correct, it was impossible to tell whether the tasks were appropriately challenging for the specific audience.

In addition to hearing from the academics who presented these online sessions, we received some feedback from participants who were in the audience.

“I liked how it was interactive. Even if not directly with the speaker we could still join in within the class. We did not have microphones enabled, partly because most students joined as whole classes, but they were able to use the chat box and the speaker used websites that the students could enter their answers into”.

“They (the students) valued the session and interactivities being live”

“Presenting this remotely was a great idea as all our students could benefit rather than be limited to one minibus full. Thank you for sharing.”

“I enjoyed the fact that it was interactive and engaging”

“Start was too slow and too many instructions repeated. I nearly logged off”

Things to take away when planning outreach activities online:

  • Shorter sessions
  • A mix of activities
  • Opportunities for discussion
  • Things to take away and work on later
  • Interactivities – e.g. or Desmos
  • Visually interesting activities
  • Using break-out rooms
  • Chat box interaction
  • Start promptly to avoid losing interest from audience who can simply exit with a click

Get in touch

As always, you can get in touch with us on Twitter: @OUMathsStats or you can email our outreach team at:

We would love to hear from you if you have attended one of our events or have watched them on Youtube.

Please also let us know if you would like to invite some OU academics to take part in your outreach event.

Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

What is the way forward for Maths exams 2021?

A personal viewpoint from Cathy Smith, Mathematics Education lead at the Open University.

Ofqual and DfE are currently consulting about their proposals for giving students GCSE, AS and A level grades this summer, a change of plan from the problematic awards from 2020. The full consultation document is here  and the way to give your response is here.  These are my thoughts about what they are proposing, distilled into six points.

  1. The purposes of assessment.

The consultation document offers this about the meaning and purpose of grades: “Qualification grades indicate what a person who holds the qualification knows, understands and can do, and to what standard. That is their purpose. People who use qualifications, for example to make selection decisions, need to be able to rely on the grades. For qualification grades to be meaningful, a person who holds a qualification with a higher grade must have shown that their knowledge, understanding or skills are at a higher standard than a person who holds a qualification with a lower grade.”

One trouble with this is that it mixes up the certification and selection purposes of examinations. Grades are meant to certify what someone ‘knows, understands and can do’ so that employers and universities can be reasonably sure that someone with a grade 4 can, for example, increase a quantity by 20%.   This year, students have had unusual and disrupted learning for 10 months.  Most of them will simply not know as much as a pre-2020 student.  Through no fault of their own, this cohort would – overall –  probably get a worse grade distribution if they sat normal GCSEs, and within that the groups  whose education has been most disrupted would have the worst drop.

The government has already conceded that post-2020 result do not mean the same as pre-2020 results. This is why Ofqual is talking about reducing curriculum content or allowing teachers to match tests only to what has been taught. The problem here is that rather than recover students’ knowledge, it risks being narrowed further.

This leaves the selection purpose: a person with a higher grade should have shown that they have ‘a higher standard’ than someone with a lower grade.  The 2020 outcry over grades shows how much people care about children’s futures resting on comparing grades.  To be fair, this has to hold within a school, across schools, and across any different ways of assessing that standard, or opinions of how to interpret it.  It is no small task to achieve this. Existing GCSE and A-level assessments are not perfect, and that is not for want of effort.

  1. Need for assessment

It is worth asking why it is necessary to have this national ranking. Certainly, grades for A-levels, BTECs or other final qualifications allow admissions offices to make quick impersonal decisions where students are applying to university or apprenticeship schemes with limited intake numbers. For GCSE, where all students must now continue in education, most in their current school, there is no longer a strong justification.  16-year olds have years of assessment history behind them that can inform their choice of subjects and courses.  There are many, many countries around the world that manage without the equivalent of GCSE. Although it is not in the scope of the 2021 consultation, there should be a future discussion about the time and money devoted to a wide-scale assessment.

  1. Exams or exam-papers

The proposal (read it in full yourself here) is to replace national exams with new ‘smaller’ papers, covering just a few topics, that will be written by the exam boards in the next couple of months. Teachers will not see the questions but will choose a few of these papers for their students to sit, then mark the papers themselves (to provided mark-schemes) and be responsible for how they turn these marks into grades.  (There is no detail about how this will happen.) Maths is actually simpler here, as teachers don’t have to consider how to include practical or oral work in the final grade.  The proposal suggests that teachers might also write their own papers, which will have to be vetted by the exam boards. It also suggests that only papers taken in a particular time period (e.g. one week in June) will count. This in effect throws away the assessment records that teachers have been carefully building up, to be replaced by new ones.  Students who have been sitting a test every fortnight since September will be overjoyed!.

  1. The danger of the new

Perhaps this proposal seems a reasonable compromise. Certainly, given time, teachers could develop skills to make fair judgements between students in their own schools and between other schools. In the late 1980s teachers themselves wrote the exam papers for Mode 3 GCSEs that were accredited by the then-version of Ofqual; this century they moderated GCSE grades and national curriculum levels across schools. But they have not done this for over ten years. Only a few teachers (in some schools) are also examiners. Writing high-stakes exam questions is a skill that examiners have and teachers have not needed.  So is setting grade boundaries. With new, untrialled exam papers, even the exam boards would find it hard to predict how students will perform, let alone when teaching has been disrupted by a pandemic. Inventing a new system simply means we cannot tell in advance how the unfairnesses will appear, not that there won’t be any.

  1. Workload

It is hard to overstate this: teachers and school leaders are being asked to take on the job and the responsibilities of exam designers, markers and checkers, to run the whole appeals process and have the paperwork to defend themselves against any criticism from students, parents or Ofqual itself. This is on top of teaching full classes, running testing and looking  out for children’s wellbeing.

  1. Who loses?

It is hard to see any winners in the situation. Covid is not fair.  Students aren’t getting the education they need, and what they are losing is as much about social skills, about being able to work alongside each other, as it is about what they know.   But when you introduce a new system,  and it goes wrong or it can be exploited or it depends on teachers’ resources and goodwill rather than their actual job, it is always the children who are already disadvantaged that lose out most.

It seems wrong to criticise the proposals without suggesting an alternative, but no one person should be pushing their suggestion.  I would add some different questions to the consultation: What do we think would happen if there were no GCSE grades at all this year? If students were advised by their teachers about which year 12 courses they should take? If all 16-year olds were offered an opportunity to sit GCSE Maths and English for free sometime in the next three years?

Do respond to the consultation –  here.

Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

Generalising in Mathematics

Generalising in Mathematics by Philip Higgins



One of the most revealing aspects of ME625 and ‘Developing Thinking in Algebra’ (Mason et al 2012) is that algebra is the search for the general rule and that this generality can be uncovered in most cases, and with some practise it becomes achievable. I say this because I never felt that way in my O’ Level school maths, back in the 1980’s. Most education critique that I currently read says that the curriculum should now be taught differently, with creativity being foremost. Searching out that general rule is a creative challenge. I have learnt all this aged fifty, having graduated in BSc Mathematics and its Learning. The following extract is from my ME625 End-of-Module assignment in which I tried to step up another level and actually teach generalising to a student. It was not easy.

Finding generality through Invariance and Change

My maths learner was my son, twenty years old, and in second year university on a Product Design course. He is educated to A’ Level in Mathematics. It was my difficulties in trying to teach him generalising during earlier work, which he found confusing due to my lack of structure, that prompted me to shake up ‘Question 13.1.5 Invariance’.

Here is the course textbook question:

Task 13.1.5 Invariance

What is changing and what is the same about the three following expressions as a whole?

3 + 5 = 2 x 4          5 + 7 = 2 x 6          3 + 7 = 2 x 5


I adapted it and split the whole task into six small parts so that steady progress could be made without feeling overwhelmed by suddenly having to generalise. The ‘Dimensions-of-possible-variation’ task shown at the end allowed him to create his own version.

Part One – finding changes

My learner explores change using spot-the-difference. The image is Paul Morphy, a famous Victorian chess player. My idea is to encourage visual interest.

He stumbled with finding the last three differences. It seems my tiniest of ‘Paul Morphy tweeks’ was challenging to him but this encouraged focus.


Part Two – visualising the nth term

In part two my idea was to familiarise my learner with the general number ‘ n ‘ but without the trauma of having to extract it from a ‘sequence of numbers’ or a ‘story question’. It is a simple approach.



The ‘n&n’ task is undoubtably easy and sure enough it was for him but notice his use of ‘n-2’ and ‘n-4’. I prompted him for an alternative expression and he found ‘ n/2 ‘.


Part Three – moving from iconic to symbolic

For part three I asked my learner to explore change in a numerical context, so more symbolic than visual.

Question – Invariance & Change

What Stays the Same (invariance) and What Changes (change) for the three following expressions as a whole?

3 + 5 = 2 x 4, 
5 + 7 = 2 x 6,
3 + 7 = 2 x 5

On writing the headings ‘Invariance’ and ‘Change’ he was seeing the language patterns and using them. His articulation was valid. He noticed operators ( x and +), and values (3+5=8, and 4 is half of 8) but he did not see the 4 as being in the centre of 3+5. Learners see different things.


Part Four – using the nth term towards a general formula

Only now in part four did my learner need to generalise. The idea here is that he has settled into ideas of ‘change’ and ‘invariance’ without having had an algebraic equation launched at him.

Question – invariance & change

Think back to the “ n & n’s challenge “, earlier. We are going to use this idea now.

The aim is to find a general expression for our three equations above.

  1. Take your first equation.
  2. Let n=3.
  3. Now follow through the remaining numbers, term by term, for each of those terms that you found earlier that change, and in so doing, develop a general expression.

Those terms that did not change, the ‘invariant’ terms, will just stay the same.

  1. Repeat, to obtain a general expression for the remaining two equations.

Test it – exploring the range of possible change for “ n “

We suspect that ‘ n ‘ is an integer, since we made it so when we first set it at 3, but now ask if your general formula works for other types of number.


  • Does it work for other whole numbers?
  • Does it work for fractions?
  • Does it work for square roots?

My learner’s generalising,


And his testing by specialising,


Part Five – can I create my own maths question?

School maths often ends there and the student thinks ‘so what?’ but now I encouraged my learner to push on and to create his own unique bit of maths using the theme of ‘Dimensions-of-possible-variation’.

Question – explore which bits of your general expression you can change

We want to create a whole new maths problem, which has the spirit of the existing, but which you alone have made.

  • Looking now at your general expression, which elements can you change?
  • Now change them.
  • Make sure both sides of the equation still equate to each other
  • Now insert some numbers to get three different expressions, much as the original question above did to start with.

This is your new maths problem. You could present these expressions to somebody and ask them “What Stays the Same and What Changes for these expressions as a whole?”

We reached a key learning moment; could he vary the generalisation? I did explain at this point what was being asked for (to adapt an element of your choosing in this general equation) but not what to vary. He hesitated, thought, and nervously said;
“The coefficient?”
I asked for more.
“n?” he said.
I told him to go ahead and our ‘n’ now morphed into 3n2


All that remained was to insert new numbers for ‘n’ and recreate the original question in his own vision. With care he substituted the numbers 2, and ⅓, and ¼ . Interestingly, despite squaring of fractions he did all of this without recourse to a calculator, which suggested competence.

Substituting for 2,


Substituting for ⅓, and ¼


This was his unique version of the original question. He had used ‘Imagination’ and he had ‘Got a Sense of’ the themes of Invariance and Change.

His rewritten version of Task 13.1.5


Part Six – The Conclusion – is generalising relevant to me?

This part of the task involved no mathematical work and no question to do. It was given as a simple analogy. The idea was to appeal my learner’s Product Design skills and to explain and inform him as to what we mean by ‘developing thinking’.

Mathematical thinking, as shown in the above process, can be summarised:

  • You are given a particular set of numbers in an equation.
  • You generalise that equation, so it works for any number ‘ n ‘.
  • You classify it as a simple linear relationship and explore its range.
  • You manipulate it by changing those dimensions which can vary.
  • You gain control over the structure of the problem.
  • This control enables you to create a new and extended problem. This new problem is your brand.

Here is a simple analogy:

“You dedicate time to studying some particular timber materials; Ash, Birch, Ebony, Iroko and others. You generalise them into ‘Hardwoods’. You classify the hardwoods in terms of texture. You manipulate that texture into your proposed design of a piece of furniture. This gives you control over the look of the finished product. This control and finish gain you kudos. This kudos informs your brand.”


My reflections on the above task

I tried to conduct this question in the spirit of Jo Boaler’s piece on Sarah Flannery, European Young Scientist of the Year (Boaler, 2013). She writes (using her italics),

“The first thing I realized about learning mathematics was that there is a hell of a difference between, on the one hand, listening to maths being talked about by somebody else and thinking that you are understanding, and, on the other, thinking about maths and understanding it yourself and talking about it to someone else.”

I conversed with my learner on Task 13.1.5, explaining why we were doing the steps and what it achieved. He proceeded smoothly, using Invariance and Change in both spot-the-difference and in his generalising, but it seems my approach backfired somewhat. He was simply listening to ‘maths being talked about by me’. My conversing had failed in the chance to let him talk and reveal his own understanding. I then questioned why he had done so well and he said,
“You explained quite a lot, which made it easy.”
I immediately sensed didactic tension and realised that I could not now undo all of that talk. Did he just display behaviours that I had asked of him? Was he generalising or did he just blindly convert numbers into n’s? I sense a lot of the latter, though he did work actively on Dimensions-of-possible-variation, creating his own set of three equations, and likewise the work on Invariance and Change was all his own. Fortunately, the ‘Heads & Tails’ task came next, so I then felt the urge to do just the opposite and maintain a steady silence whilst he experienced the mathematical struggle, intervening only where needed.

Finding generality through a recreational maths problem

Posamentier’s problem on Heads and Tails

You are seated at a table in a dark room. On the table, there are twelve pennies, five of which are heads up and seven of which are tails up. Now mix the coins and separate them into two piles of five and seven coins, respectively. Because you are in a dark room, you will not know if the coins you are touching were heads up or tails up. Then flip over the coins in the five-coin pile. When the lights are turned on there will be an equal number of heads in each of the two piles. How can this be possible?”

In ‘Heads & Tails’ I chose a question beyond the course material, and also as a way to challenge myself in applying the course techniques. I found the author’s original question (Posamentier, 2017) a little awkward (why sit in a dark room?) and he also revealed the solution, so in the spirit of the ME625 course textbook I developed it into a more eye-catching ‘Story Problem’, which related to my learner as a design student, and I kept the pattern hidden so I could register his surprise when he spotted the outcome of the puzzle, since if we could both take delight in his reaction then it acted as a motivator.



“You take a break from your studies, lean back in your chair, think about pizza, deadlines, assignments, software, formulae, design work, and you commit to acquiring a new set of watercolour markers for £11.99. You stare vacantly at the twelve pound-coins on your desk. The shops are shut. It’s late. Only the pizza place is trading.

You lean forward and playfully arrange five of the coins to form a group showing heads and the seven remaining coins to form a group showing tails. It looks concise, deliberate, and organised, but suddenly there’s a power cut. As the lights whine down you sit in the dark, waiting for something to reboot.

Nothing reboots!

The lights in the pizza parlour across the way have gone out too! Maybe it’s a temporary street-thing.

You think about reaching for your phone-torch but before you do you playfully shuffle the coins around in the pitch dark on your desk, and once again, by touch alone, separate them into a group of five, and a group of seven.

You flip over all the coins in the group of five.

The lights soon reboot, much to your delight, and you look down at the group of five and the group of seven coins, expecting something rather random.

Weirdly you notice something about the heads in each group!

How can that possibly be???”

Can you explain it;
i) in a sentence, that a friend or colleague could follow?
ii) in a diagram?
iii) using a table (ICT, not kitchen)?
iv) using a generalisation?

I had further adapted the task by asking the four questions shown above, three to help articulate, and a final challenging task of generalisation, with each step improving his understanding toward the next. The third question set up the problem on an Excel spreadsheet and my idea was to explore what awareness he had about the structure of the problem, which by this point should have been established. Would he see generalising or is it ‘just a spreadsheet’? At the final step he must generalise, but ‘finding x’ feels like ‘school algebra’. Would he still have absences in his grasp of it (you must first understand what ‘x’ is), despite progress on the earlier work?

The following photos show how the puzzle was played out after my learner had initially read the question and before he started on the written element.


This was the starting position, where heads were indicated by the white circles,


Now he shuffled the coins. We did not sit in the dark. I improvised a canopy to allow the coins to be hidden,



The coins are further shuffled prior to being flipped over, all still hidden under the canopy,


Joy was evident in this task. He whispered to himself upon reading the question, “So true …”. Idle time is universal. As the task unfolded for the very first time he said with sheer delight;
No Way!! No way does that happen every time!”
He did it again and again. Same result!

Question (iii) – using a table

In approaching the questions my learner did not explicitly use the theme of ‘Do / Talk’ to himself or draft sentences nor even replay the pieces. Instead he sat quietly and thought and eventually drew the table shown below. He had unexpectedly opted to answer question three first, despite my spreadsheet-in-waiting. His table lacked good labelling to identify the flip of the coins but you can see that ‘3 and 2’ becomes ‘2 and 3’. It favours the iconic with its visual cues like columns and place-holders for his numbers. He had the number ‘2‘ at the foot of each column, which was the correct answer for that shuffle.


Question (i) – using a sentence

My learner moved onto question one. Articulating through a sentence is tricky. I could not make full sense of his and there was a struggle to clarify the ratio found in the table. Again, there was no reference to the flip of the coins, so it lacked detail.


Question (ii) – using a diagram

Next he tackled question two but he was confused about a diagram. I had to first assist him on how to apply this diagram when moving from the enactive to the iconic. He followed my lead and then took a random selection of five circles, and then drew the flipped version, which allowed him to articulate the equal numbers of heads. You can see that his ‘Original Pile’ has two dotted circles and his ‘Taken Slot Inverted’ has the same.


Question (iii) – using my speadsheet

I now had to reintroduce question three with my pre-prepared spreadsheet. His task was to fill in the correct formulae in the cells. The Excel sheet is the key learning moment because inputting the cells is generalising and he recognised the need for the ‘Step-3 left cell’ to be a random number of heads (shown here as 32), and he succeeded with the formulae in Step-3 and Step-4 boxes with ease as they are simple subtractions or else unaltered. We did commence with 5 heads and 7 tails, but he soon experimented with 45 heads and tails.


Question (iv) – using a generalisation

Question four proved the trickiest for my learner despite him now having some grasp of the situation from the previous three.

His generalising version began with two variables, x and y, but see how he ended up with y = x, which got a bit confusing and he then scribbled out the y variable. When the coins are flipped he wrote down ‘ 7-x ‘ at the foot of the page and then scribbled out the ‘ 7 – ‘. He was almost there.

His first attempt,


In his following page the algebra still seemed difficult to grasp for him. Here he has 1 and 6, so no matching heads. There was no sense of the theme ‘Do / Talk’ to himself first in an effort to grasp the unknown before attempting to solve. In the bottom of his page I had by now prompted him to “think of what x is”. See how he succeeded but only by clinging on to Specialising at the same time, here treating x as 1, (despite having two heads). It shows more confidence is needed.

His further attempt,


My Reflection on the above task

The ‘Heads & Tails’ task embraced one of Posamentier’s ‘Effective Techniques’ (Posamentier, 2016),

Technique 4Entice the Class with a ‘Ghee-whiz’ Amazing Mathematical Result: One natural way to stimulate interest in mathematics among students is through the curiosity that nestles within all of us. Such curiosity can be awakened through new ideas, paradoxes, uncertainties, or complex results. Here the teacher’s talents come into play to find illustrations of easily understood situations that lead to unexpected results and leave the students intrigued (ghee-whiz), resulting in a motivation to pursue the topic further.”

Poems pare back word into some visceral cry and mathematical puzzles do likewise. This task offered that ghee-whiz result. My learner’s reaction, described above, resonated with this. It was sheer excitement at such a simple trick.

My learner Imagined-and-Expressed the process behind this trick in the form of a table. It was unexpected. I imagined he would sit for some time flipping and un-flipping coins (Do / Undo) to understand, but he thought it all through quietly in his mind. His table was accurate but see how his generalising fell apart in places. Where does the need for a second variable ‘y’ come from? It looked like a residue from linear equations (y=mx). No pause occurred to first grasp ‘x’ and follow its path from ‘5-x’ in one group, to ‘x’ in the other. It was hurried, evidenced by much scribbling. It was the last question-part so perhaps he was disengaging. Should I have intervened and talked more? It seems that conversing itself requires mastery. I asked him why, having found a general number in the spreadsheet, did he struggle with generalisation. Surely the spreadsheet simply ‘gave the game away’?
“It didn’t,” he said, “that was just filling in boxes, and besides those equations are all hidden anyway.”
So oddly, despite his setting up of those very generalised equations he could not easily connect that to generalising. Software, as powerful as it is, is not a panacea. It conceals. My view is that this is a problem of technique and method. He has not yet automated the concept of filling in Excel cells as a process of generality. More Do / Talk was required by him, both at the Excel and the generalising question. If I intervened at all it could have been to point this out. I was hoping to witness (maybe naively) the ‘Manipulate – Get a Sense of – Articulate’ spiral of increasing sophistication with each part. Instead it was curiously mixed.


Both tasks had the course textbook’s key ideas integral in their solutions and for me and my learner it showed that one can take ‘Developing Thinking in Algebra’ and apply it to the outside world, to problems randomly found in curiosity books. In other words, I could answer Root Questions using these general techniques.

Two things emerged from our solving:

  1. The level of verbal interaction in a lesson, and especially the learner talking of their maths understanding back to you, is extremely sensitive to how independently your learner will solve the problem.
  2. This conversation has to be tailored to your learner’s ability. This means that you have to know your learner (difficult in a large classroom).

It informed my approach to algebraic thinking, and serves my goal to seek control and power over the teaching process, and this is not dissimilar to the learner’s own quest for control and power over their maths problem.

Both draw inspiration from Kate Clanchy, on the poet Melissa Lee-Houghton, (Clanchy, 2019):

She says, frankly and simply, that she suffers from depression and poetry is not the cure for it, but that poetry can give her a way of understanding and formulating herself, both as she writes it, and as she reads herself back afterwards. It gives her some distance and control.
The kids are mesmerized by this, and so am I. Control. Not turnaround but control. This word has somehow never occurred to me before, in all my anxious considerations of poetry and therapy, but it seems the right one.”

She adds,

And if they dig deep, and find effective images, and make a good poem out of the truth of their lives, then that is not just control, but power. It’s different from being happy; it isn’t a cure for anything, but it is profoundly worth having. And actually, I don’t need anyone to tell me that; I know that from my own experience. I know it for myself.”

Care must be taken with such comparisons and the sense of control and power is by far an idiosyncratic thing but the spirit is the same; I want to understand, and dig-deep, and find effective methods, seek profundity, so as to be adept at producing the maths resource that converses, motivates and invokes the art of generalisation. Furthermore, what learner would refuse a chance at acquiring control and power; control in knowing how to start, where to start, preferred strategy, direction of travel and when to reverse, and of the power and delight when the problem yields because you fought for it, all of which alleviates (not cures) your maths fear.

Interestingly, none of it is for turnaround of the student, and the course textbook itself states, arguably, “I cannot change others”. The end desire is that the learner will change of their own volition, much as I have done in the course of my own algebraic thinking.

Seeking such personal power and control is rooted in human nature. It is enlightening to see ‘Developing Thinking in Algebra’ tie mathematical power to the humanist subjects of English and History, and by the prompting of learners to “develop their powers to imagine, and to express what they imagine to others”. We can rejoice that this notion is still vibrant thirty-three years after Davis & Hersh (Davis & Hersh, 1986) embraced it when the omnipresent I.C.T. was still cutting its coding teeth,

Metaphor and analogy exist in mathematics and physics as well as in poetry and in religion. Rhetoric exists in mathematics (despite claims to the contrary) as it exists in politics. Aesthetic judgement exists in mathematics as it exists in the graphical or performing arts.”

Those authors wholly reclaim mathematics as being a human institution, and if it ever ceases to be so then they argue that we must “let it decay”.



Boaler, Jo. 2013. The Elephant in the Classroom. Souvenir Press.

Clanchy, Kate. 2019. Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. Picador.

Davis, Philip. Hersh, Reuben. 1986. Descartes Dream. Penguin Group.
The authors conclude on page 305, “If a synthesis cannot be achieved, if it comes to a showdown between man and mathematical science, then man would be best advised to stop the process. Let it fall into decay…”

Mason, John. Graham, Alan. Johnston-Wilder, Sue. 2012. Developing Thinking in Algebra. The Open University in association with Sage Publications Ltd.

Posamentier, Alfred S. Krulik, Stephen. 2016. Effective Techniques to Motivate Mathematics Instruction. Routledge.

Posamentier, Alfred S. 2017. The Joy of Mathematics. Prometheus Books.






Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

Developing Thinking in Learning and Doing Geometry

Developing Thinking in Learning and Doing Geometry.


You might have thought the title of this blog is unnecessarily complicated! It is a hybrid of the names for the current Open University geometry module (Developing Thinking in Geometry) and the new geometry module (Learning and Doing Geometry) which is currently being written by the Mathematics Education team at the OU. This blog post is about our developing thinking of how people learn and do geometry.

The current module

Developing Thinking in Geometry was one of a suite of modules originally developed as part of a post-graduate diploma for practising teachers and launched in 2005. It is now fifteen years old and is studied by level three undergraduate students, many but not all of whom intend to enter the teaching profession. The time has come to replace it with a new module written for contemporary students. When writing the module materials our picture of one typical student is of someone preparing to undertake PGCE in Secondary Mathematics or in Primary teaching. Other students may be working as teaching assistants or as unqualified teachers of mathematics who wish to upskill in the areas of mathematics subject knowledge and pedagogy. Other students may simply be interested in learning about learning and acquiring the specific skillset which allows them to do this.

The textbook which forms the basis of the study materials for the current module.

The production of the new module

The process of developing a new module for the Open University typically takes two years. The writing team have spent the last academic year writing the content of 30 weeks of study at 10 hours per week for this 30 credit module. Once this is completed, and has been reviewed by our critical readers, there is still a lot of work to be done in the second year as the module is gradually uploaded to the website; editing, production of high specification graphics, and videos, building the interactive content being amongst those. That’s not to mention the work done by people in the rights teams and the library to ensure we give students access to third party material and literature. All of this is being co-ordinated by our curriculum manager and the learning design team. Last but not least our External Assessor will oversee the materials to check that they are consistent with the standards of level 6 study (equivalent to OU third level undergraduate studies) in the Higher Education sector.

In writing Learning and Doing Geometry we aim to keep much of the theoretical underpinning of the older module but target it to the contemporary student demographic and move all resources online, with the exception of the task booklets. Important aspects of the module include the explicit connections made between presentation of pedagogic theories and their application to learner activities. Important ideas from selected theories in the field of mathematics education have been included in the module materials. Students studying Learning and Doing Geometry will learn about how geometric thinking develops.

Developing thinking about learning

Students studying the module will be asked to work on geometric tasks and to reflect on their own learning and their approaches to solving problems by making reference to a set of important module ideas. This aspect of the module is clearly important because the only mind you can look inside is your own. Being aware of how you learn and the approaches which work for you and linking them to important module ideas requires a degree of self-awareness and objectivity. The activity of thinking about your mental processes is known as meta-cognition and is considered to be the highest level of thinking. Students can use the insight gained from observing and reflecting on their own learning as a guide to ascertain how other learners learn geometry, whether this is in the context of the classroom or in smaller groups. It is important to be aware that not all people learn in the same way and that less experienced learners often need to work at a slower pace while they assimilate new knowledge and skills. Careful observation and listening to what they say are the best ways to explore how learners may be thinking about the geometry. Use of questions to prompt learners to talk about what they are doing and how they are thinking can shed more light onto their thought processes. It is the closest that you can get to looking into the mind of another person.

Perceptual and discursive reasoning

In order to reflect on geometric reasoning. we have identified important ideas and described how these can be used to support the analysis of learning and doing geometry. Two of the most important of these ideas in the context of geometry are perceptual reasoning and discursive reasoning. At the simplest level these two ideas describe how learners look at geometric figures and how they think and talk about them. Of course, it is more complex than that. When learners look at geometric figures they may notice all kinds of different aspects of the figure, emphasising what appear to be the important features and ignoring others. Learners may divide the figure into constituent parts and might imagine what happens if changes are made to it. When learners articulate aspects of the same geometric figure they may describe what they have noticed, attempt to justify this or ask questions about the figure.

Invariance and change

Another important idea in geometry is invariance and change. This idea can be used as a strategy by students to notice what is the same and what is different between two different figures, or two examples of the same figure. Students can notice what stays the same and what changes when they act on a figure, for example if the figure has been constructed in a dynamic geometry software program. The ability to identify invariance and change in geometry draws on learners’ natural tendency to spot differences and look for patterns and this gives it its power for learning. The example below demonstrates a typical task from the module where observing invariance and change can be used to as an approach.

Point Square

Place a point in a square as shown. Investigate areas A, B, C and D. What happens as the point moves?


This task, which is taken from one of the task booklets for Learning and Doing geometry, looks like a simple question. It becomes much more interesting as the learner begins to explore the areas A, B, C and D and to observe what happens to those areas as the point moves. Consider how perceptual and discursive reasoning come into play. How does asking ‘what is the same and what is different’ help the learner to notice invariance and change as the point moves?


Representations of geometric figures is another idea which is important in the module. In geometry we always work with representations, whether that be static diagrams drawn on paper, dynamic figures on the computer screen, or a worded definition of a figure. The type of representation and the context of the representation are important factors which influence the way that learners think and reason about the geometric objects being represented.

Content of the new module

These and other module ideas form a framework for students to reflect on their own geometric reasoning and to analyse the reasoning of learners which they work with. Other important theories that have arisen from research into mathematics education are presented in the module. We have aimed to provide an up-to-date picture of current educational know-how. Curriculum is mentioned briefly, but we are aware that the Mathematics Education modules are studied by students in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland as well as by international students. There is a range of curricula in the various jurisdictions but most of the mathematics content is typical across them all. The mathematics content is presented at the level of secondary education for ages 11 to 18. What makes Learning and Doing Geometry and the other Mathematics Education modules into OU level three material is the depth and complexity of the Educational theory.

Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

What does it mean to understand probability: with diversions into parrots, children and sweets

One of the lockdown conversations that has stuck in my mind was with a colleague whose 8-year old does not really want to go back to school. One of his reasons is a tribute to her homeschooling arrangements: he has really enjoyed having more personalised learning activities, with adult attention. She was very conscious of the circumstances that make this possible.  Having time away from school has made all of us think more deeply about what school does and does not offer. Being in a room with  29 other children is probably not the best way to learn curriculum topics.  However, learning about other people, and learning how to get along without adult attention are also purposes of education.

The other reason for her son’s reluctance is that he is worried about catching the virus. They have talked about keeping safe, and what he can and cannot control in his environment. This is a time when it would be helpful for an 8-year old to have an understanding of low and high probabilities and low and high risk.      

What does it mean to understand probabilities? Coincidentally there has been a recent study suggesting that parrots can do probability  The researchers taught the parrots to take tokens from their closed hands: if the revealed token was black they gave them a treat, but an orange token gets them nothing. Then the parrots are shown two jars, each containing a mix of black and orange tokens – in different proportions.  The researchers pick a token out of each jar, hiding them in closed fists. The parrots consistently chose the fist corresponding to the jar that has higher proportion of black tokens. It is a fascinating study, and there is more to it. But are we sure that parrots understand probability? Maybe they understand ratio? Maybe understanding ratio supports them in making an aesthetic or emotional choice, based on preferring the look or the associations of the black-er jar. Are we sure their choice is based on predicting long term frequencies? How could we actually tell?

When we talk to children about probabilities of catching an illness, these differing aspects of probability are all involved.  One of the aspects they need to learn is ratio, and another is big/small numbers, because the chance of an 8-year old getting a severe case of COVID is very low. Another is using probability – a mathematical measure of chance –  to make predictions about long-term likelihood.

We often teach probability in schools through practical experiments. Experiments with dice and spinners are active and memorable and they help children establish a broad connection between theoretical probability and long-term expected outcomes. They work fairly well when we are interested in outcomes that are reasonably likely to happen. A popular activity is the ‘horse race’ modelled by adding the score on two two dice: horse #7 will usually win. The probability of throwing a 7 is  6/36, while the next most likely scores are 6 and 8 with probability 5/36. In my experience, after 15 throws, 7 does win. This aids children’s appreciation that it is more likely than any other score. ( Now I ought to go and calculate this theoretically – why 15 and not 10?).

But there are tensions in using practical experiments to appreciate low probabilities. A practical experiment ‘showing’ that a chance of 1 in 100 is unlikely to happen is necessarily boring to take part in.  It won’t maintain a child’s interest.  And there is an issue too that we are relying on the salience of experience, but you cannot control the outcome of a random event – it may be that the child does roll the dice and get something that feels like the very rare result more often than the probability suggests ( and sometimes children will make unexpected connections, for example ‘I didn’t get two 1s but I did get two 3s and that’s nearly the same’) .

Prof David Spiegelhalter estimates that the risk of an under 15 catching and dying of covid 19 is 1 in 5.3 million. That is very, very unlikely. It would be a very boring experiment to model.  But how to make sense of it. With older people you can use an analogy: their risk is the risk of driving for a year all bundled into a few weeks.

And risk – that is even more complicated than probability – as it takes into account the severity of the outcome as well as its probability.  For me the driving analogy works because I do know a few people who have been killed while driving – and I also know many, many people who haven’t. I can start to appreciate the scale and severity of risk. A teenager won’t necessarily  know of anyone, and may envisage low risk as no risk, or may be over-influenced by one close event.   In any case often when children act it is not because they are assessing risk, its because they are unconscious of it or ignoring it.

Our conversation about explaining risk ended up returning to sweets – the bags of mixed flavours that contain some you like and a few you don’t. There’s lots to talk about here:  If I offer you a sweet from the bag, would you take it? Even if you only know the nasty flavour when its in your mouth? Would you buy a whole bag for yourself? If you were making a bag of 100 sweets, how many nice ones would you put in and how many of the nasty ones?  Suppose someone buys a HUGE bag, enough for your whole school to have one,  but you know there is one nasty sweet in there – would you take one?   One in 5.3 million is a thousand children eating a sweet every day for one and a half years and finding just one bad one.

Of course the nature of the outcome matters as well – sweets aren’t frightening, although they can be imagined as very repulsive. I think that makes it  quite a nice context to play about with.  Going back to school has many things you do enjoy, and a small chance of something bad.

Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

…  even if you don’t get to a solution you’ll learn more about the environment around you

What makes some people love doing maths and others not? This is a question that inspires our research at the OU? We are always looking for stories of people who have come to maths in a surprising way.  In this blog we talk to Charlotte, who spent primary school struggling with times tables and calculations, and is now finishing her mathematics degree at Murray Edwards College in Cambridge. She reflects on how her dyslexia influences the way she approaches maths.


There are some points of Charlotte’s story that resonate with mathematics education research:

  • There is more than one way to do well in maths: you can be the person who sees connections, or a careful symbol-cruncher;
  • It’s very common to feel that you are struggling in maths, and not notice where you are succeeding (especially for quieter, slower workers);
  • Persistence – doing the same thing – is over-rated in mathematics; being willing to try another way is more successful;
  • Families and stories of people doing maths (even simple maths) are powerful motivators

Here is what Charlotte told us:

My earliest memories of doing maths involve me walking to primary school with my mum and trying to recite timestables. I was awful at timestables and at no point did I believe I could ever learn them, even with mum’s chants. I think she gave up quite quickly. I also remember being taught how to read analogue clocks in maths lessons. I could never do that either (although now I prefer them to digital).

Looking back the thing I found difficult was anything involving memory and/or calculations. That is pretty much everything in primary school. A particular memory that has stayed with me was during secondary school when I was 14. When we finished a lesson early we always did the same thing: we had specific numbers and operations and had to make every number up to 100 with them. Whenever we went back to it the boy next to me would laugh at how slow I was compared to everyone else, so that eventually I gave up and refused to participate. I dreaded maths lesson that entire year because of this.

My primary school split us into two maths sets. I was in the top one, but I couldn’t keep up. At secondary school I was put in the second set of five, but I found it very difficult and did not feel like I belonged. Everyone seemed to be faster than me.

That did change.  I remember the first time I finished a task first; the teacher came over to check my answers and started to show me the best strategy to use. Then we realised I had already used that strategy. It was a very good feeling.

Right at the end of year 9, just before the sets were locked for GCSEs, I was moved into the top set. Again I started near the bottom, but slowly moved up and was eventually the best girl in the set (not too hard-there were only 4 of us in a class of 30). This pattern repeated again in sixth form when I moved to a new (all girls) school; at the start I felt like everyone knew things I didn’t, but by the end I could correct the teacher.

I can see now that as I got older I got much better at maths compared to my peers; I think this reflects the change in maths from computation to more abstract concepts. I was planning on doing either a Physics or Computer Science degree until I did A level maths; this is when you start getting close to the fun stuff.

Also, I was diagnosed with dyslexia in year 12, when a teacher from my new school told me to get tested. My dyslexia still affects my maths a lot; My short term memory is very bad and I misread and/or mix up symbols in equations. This makes tasks like finding eigenvalues and simplifying equations literally impossible for me, when other people find it simple.  I can’t describe how annoying it is to solve a ‘trivial’ equation five times and get five different answers. I have had to avoid as many courses as I could which involve this sort of algebra, which has naturally pushed me to more abstract and pure maths.

I don’t spend all my time at university working.  I love playing rugby; it’s such a great balance between tactical thinking and physical strength. Also  my dad loves it so it’s in the family! 

I played for the Cambridge 1st team and was in the winning Twickenham squad last December, but sadly I am not playing rugby this term as I need to focus on my studies. I plan on going back to it once I’ve graduated.

I also spend a lot of time with CUBB, the university brass band and I’m the concert manager this year.  The friends I have made at CUBB have been some of the best people I’ve ever met, and I suspect they will be life long.

What I am hoping to do next is a Computational Biology masters, so that I can carry on studying maths, but start using it in a more practical way. We can learn so much about humans, plants and animals by studying their DNA and that is about finding mathematical patterns in data.  The computers do all the computation for me. Afterwards I’d maybe like to go onto a PhD and work in bioinformatics.

We asked Charlotte is she had any messages for others about learning maths, which she did, and she also has a Milton Keynes connection …

First message is that primary school/GCSE maths is ugly and boring; it gets so much better after that. It does also get harder though, which brings me to my next message. So much of maths is having the confidence to follow your intuition and try a solution, especially at the higher level (A-levels and beyond). Starting a difficult maths questions is often like exploring a dark pit; you have no idea what’s around you, so it’s easy to give up, but you just need to try things; even if you don’t get to a solution you’ll learn more about the environment around you so that your next attempt will be better. Maths is not about getting the solution (at least it isn’t when you get to the good stuff), it’s about exploring a weird abstract thing, and that is really fun. For example, I love to think about countability. It is fascinating that there are ‘more’ real numbers (decimals) squashed between 0 and 1 than there are whole numbers in total.  (Read more here).

A way of ordering the fractions between 0 and 1, but not the irrationals: the Calkin-Wilf tree

The final thing I’ll mention played a vital part in me deciding to apply for a maths degree in the first place. Bletchley Park is where codes were broken in the second world war by a bunch of mathematicians, and is where modern computation was invented. I didn’t really understand the machines back when I first visited but just the idea of them made me very excited, and I go often go back there with my family to this day.


Posted on by Cathy Smith | Leave a comment

Meet an OU statistician

Rebecca Would is  a year 12 work experience student who has visited the Maths and Stats department of the OU. She interviewed Karen Vines, a senior lecturer in statistics, to find out about her and her work

Maths and Stats students at the OU will have studied with Karen on modules such as M346 and M140.  She also wrote one of the M249 Practical Statistical Modelling books. 

This is Rebecca’s report:

Let’s start with my favourite opening question:  What is your favourite vegetable?

Karen: Avocado, or carrot.*

Karen in Orienteering mode

 Are there any particular bits of stats that are of interest to you?

I’m reasonably eclectic. There are many different areas and I’ve moved around a bit, I haven’t really got a main focus. Possibly the most fun has been what’s known as sonification, turning graphs into sound.

How do you do that?

Usually you start with a scatter plot or line graph, then equate pitches with the numbers, and each graph produces its own unique tune. [There is a 5-minute video about this project here].

I like to think as a statistician I have more fun than a lot of my colleagues, as I really can pick and choose, there’s data on everything. And it’s nice to know that if I were to leave I’d be able to find somewhere, everyone needs a statistician – I’m not going anywhere, but it’s good to know the option is there.

How do you get to be a statistician at the OU?

Mostly by accident. My career planning stopped at age 21: go to uni, get a degree. I did maths but no stats in my degree, unfortunately in first year no stats was offered, so when I started to become interested in second year I was told I couldn’t as I didn’t have the background. When I got to the end of my degree, I briefly flirted with the idea of becoming an actuary, and was completely put off when I went for an interview and someone said, “Now I’m more senior I get to play on the stock market!”. Then I thought about doing an MSc in statistics or operational research, and having done operational research in my degree, I chose to do statistics. After that I was fed up of being on the education treadmill, and so went to work as a practicing statistician at a medical research place (MRC Environmental Epidemiology Unit). There was a good mix of medics and statisticians and I got to learn a lot off my senior colleagues. They were doing a lot of fun things, some less fun things, but a lot of fun things. I stayed there for almost 2 years, by which point I decided that yes I did want to do a PhD.

What was the biggest difference between doing a masters in stats and an actual job, if there was much of one?

I think there was, yes. In a masters you could do this, you could do that, you could do a regression line, I could do a T-test… but it’s knowing what to do when someone comes along saying “here’s some data.” It’s a skill certainly, and one I hope I’ve picked up.

After that I knew I wanted to move, so applied to the OU and got in as a statistical advisor, with the intention of staying 1/2 years. Stuff happens, and here I am.

Having started with the aim of 1/2 years, how long have you been here?

23. And a half.

After this Karen and I talked a lot more about university and how it has changed over the years. It was really interesting talking to her, and she has a true enjoyment for everything. I’ll take away from this the drive to keep researching more, and her love of stats.

Thanks to Rebecca for writing this and Karen for taking part.

*Cathy comments here as a frivolous editor that we can say that Mathematics deals with certainty, while Statistics deals with uncertainty: Karen shows she is a true statistician in replying to a ‘what’ question with an ‘or’ answer.

Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment

Mathematics: The unattainable key to success

Dr Cathy Smith, who leads the maths education team here at the OU, has recently had a paper published in the British Journal of Sociology of Education – congratulations Cathy! In a nutshell (if it’s possible!), the paper concerns the different forces at play when students make decisions about studying – and continuing to study – Mathematics and Further Mathematics at A Level. Here is a link to the full text of Cathy’s paper.

When I read the paper I started to think about how difficult it is for students (and teachers, and anyone else) to navigate the competing narratives that exist about mathematics, mathematicians and maths education. In so many areas of our society, we see messages that maths is the gateway to employability, financial success, boosting the economy, vital for functioning in society on any level. Yet we also see messages that maths is difficult, elite, beautiful, eccentric, invisible, unattainable – like some kind of fairy on a blackboard. Of course it is possible that maths is all of these things and more; “maths” can have many different interpretations and the distinction between “school mathematics” and “mathematicians’ mathematics” has been made numerous times in academic literature, but rarely in news stories.

The way we talk about and represent mathematics (in the news, online, in films, memes etc.) is important because it (re)produces stereotypes leading to a narrow, gendered or clichéd representation that could affect young people’s meaning-making, development and identification with mathematics and as mathematicians. In short – it affects what young people will choose to do next. As a society, we sometimes seem to determine a person’s value in the world too prominently by their profession, education and skill level. These are clearly important and the OU is established to support people in furthering their education, for whatever reasons they choose. But some politicians use the phrase ‘highly-skilled’ as shorthand for ‘the right kind of’ people (see Iain Duncan-Smith’s view here). In the context of young people making decisions about whether or not to study such a gateway subject as mathematics, the representations of maths become a matter of social justice.

For my masters thesis I studied the representation of mathematics and mathematicians in popular culture and the news media. This table shows some of the most common ways I found these two themes to be represented:

Mathematics Mathematician













Other / eccentric

There are whole host of contradictions within these representations – maths is essential yet invisible, ubiquitous but inaccessible, rule-based but eccentric. The stereotypical mathematician is also a contradiction; a white, heterosexual, middle-aged, middle-class man is often the ‘default person’ – so far so good for that group of people – but when it comes to a mathematician, he has to have something ‘other’ about him as well, like messy hair, messy suit, silly heavy glasses or a reclusive personality. It goes without saying that most mathematicians are not represented by the stereotype.

Image of Katherine Johnson, NASA physicist and mathematician.

Katherine Johnson, NASA

We are presented with a dilemma; on one hand, mathematics is a key to success and on the other, it is accessible and enjoyable for only a small section of society.  When adolescents are deciding whether to continue studying maths to A Level or at University, they need to consider not only what will help them ‘get ahead’ and what they will enjoy, but also whether they want to brand themselves as a ‘scruffy loner’ – in the case of white middle-class males – or as ‘the odd one out’ – in the case of everyone else. Dominic Cummings’ recent call out for ‘data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos…’ to apply for top jobs at No.10 strengthens the message that those who are destined for success have something unusual about them.

Another contradiction stems from the many different meanings of the word ‘maths’. What is being referred to in the message ‘you need maths to get a good job’ is most commonly school maths and, specifically, the actual qualification. Yet it is mathematician’s mathematics – maths play, exploration and investigation – we mean when we say ‘maths is beautiful and everywhere’. These two areas may overlap, but the curriculum and emphasis on exam results mean that maths qualifications and mathematician’s mathematics are often two very extreme ends of the spectrum.

A group of adults and children create 3D obects using Zome.

Visitors using Zome at the Olafur Eliasson Exhibition, Tate Modern, London

Finally, there is the dilemma of ubiquitous maths. The theme for this year’s International Day of Mathematics is Maths is Everywhere. It is often said that maths can ‘explain the world around us’. As someone who has always enjoyed maths, I agree with this – I love finding out new patterns and puzzles in all aspects of life. But many people suffer from maths anxiety and, in saying ‘maths is everywhere’, are we also saying some people do not get to “understand” the world? If we are espousing the message that maths is everywhere, we should probably also make sure that it is there for everyone – practically and aesthetically – not just an elite few.



Barwell, R. and Abtahi, Y. (2015) Morality and news media representations of mathematics education, Proceedings of the eighth international mathematics education and society conference: 298-311

Civil, M. (2002) Everyday mathematics, mathematicians’ mathematics, and school mathematics: Can we bring them together?, In M. Brenner and J. Moschkovich (Eds.), Everyday and academic mathematics in the classroom. Journal of Research in Mathematics Education Monograph 11, 40-62

Criado Perez, C. (2019) Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, London: Chatto and Windus

Damarin, S. (2000) The mathematically able as a marked category, Gender and education, 12(1), 69-85

Lewis, G. and Forsythe, S. (2018) Factors for and against choosing to study mathematics post-16, Mathematics Teaching, 262, 10-13

McLeod, D. B. (1992) Research on affect in mathematics education: A reconceptualization. In A. D. Grouws (Ed.) Handbook of research on mathematics teaching and learning, 575-596. New York / Toronto: Macmillan / Maxwell Macmillan Canada

Mendick, H. and Moreau, M.-P. (2012) New media, old images: Constructing online representations of women and men in science, engineering and technology, Gender and Education, 25(3), 325-339

Moreau, M.-P., Mendick, H. and Epstein, D. (2010) Constructions of mathematicians in popular culture and learners’ narratives: A study of mathematical and non‐mathematical subjectivities, Cambridge Journal of Education, 40(1), 25-38

National Numeracy, Manifesto for a numerate UK [Online] Available at:

Picker, S. and Berry, J. (2000) Investigating pupils’ images of mathematicians, Educational Studies in Mathematics, 43(1), 65-94

Smith, A. (2017) Report of Professor Sir Adrian Smith’s review of post-16 mathematics, London: Department for Education

Smith, C. (2019) Discourses of time and maturity structuring participation in mathematics and further mathematics, British Journal of Sociology of Education


Posted in Uncategorised | Leave a comment