New Maths A Level & the focus on problem solving
This was run by Dan Abramson, the Headteacher and expert all things to do with the teaching of the A level Maths curriculum.
In groups of four, Maths teachers sat around a table and attempted some exam questions that were in the style of the new specifications starting 2017. We were being the students and trying to pinpoint where problem solving skills come in.
Here’s one of the questions we were presented, I encourage you to grab a piece of paper and give it a try!
As we read the question, all of us tried to compartmentalise by forcing the question into specific pockets of skills - is it differentiation? Curve sketching? Lines? Gradient? ‘ Find the equation of the circle. ’ at the very end just seemed really random and unexpected.
All of us managed the question. As a group, we drew one main conclusion - the questions did not feel ‘routine’. Even though the content being tested was not new, the glue between the content is new.
So what does this mean for students?
This was put best by one of attendees - they will need to learn to be comfortable with not knowing how to start. Not having a clear path in the form of parts a,b and c laid out for them means students will need to be comfortable with the absence of ‘obviousness’.
This is really a test of their bravery of mathematical thinking - can they take small calculated leaps of faith and compose coherent arguments on their own? This is what’s most new about the A level, and also quite exciting!
The discussion eventually steered towards how we, as teachers, can build this newly required resilience in our students as part of their day to day in lessons.
What can we do - some ground level ideas
The session made me feel reassured by the new changes coming into the A level. More importantly, it left me excited about how problem solving was now in the spotlight. He also presented some really practical steps that I could see attendees hurriedly taking notes on. I have summarised my notes:
On the need for fresh resources, look to other exam formats such as the STEP, TMUA, AEA and MAT papers. These entrance tests for university are designed to test students on very similar independence of thought and mathematical grownup-ness.
Stepping away from compartmentalising, make topic ‘amalgamation’ part of the routine by creating your own or finding questions that bring together current and previous topics.
Develop a culture of problem solving - Dan describes this as something that needs to ‘permeate’ the day to day.
For example, using exam style questions that contain curve balls at the end is a good way to reinforce the basics while also flexing the problem solving muscles.
Running weekly sessions on problems outside of the curriculum that students solve in groups is something the department at King’s Maths school have implemented and I can see how this sets the right tone and builds the problem solving muscles over time.
I am excited for these changes as it feels like the routine and predictability of the old spec is being resolved. The new A level qualification will feel like an achievement of thought, rigour and core skills - a long overdue shift in expectation I think!