The maths teachers at Ada, the National College for Digital Skills, seem to be on a mission to impart knowledge as much as to encourage new ways of thinking. This was the impression I got from speaking to Ian Dickerson, the head of mathematics at the college, and Dr Sophie Carr, who will be a visiting lecturer to the students on the data analytics and visualisation apprenticeship that starts in October.
Dickerson sees his students, fresh from their GCSEs, using their tried-and-tested formula for getting the right answers in maths and he finds that he has to teach them a different way to approach their learning. “In Key Stage 3 and 4, they’ve learnt recipes to answer questions more than they’ve learnt to solve problems and take on challenges,” he said, adding that apprentices who are aged 18 and over can also sometimes have this attitude.
"They have an entitlement to understand all the maths they study."
He wants his students to have a thorough grasp of not only the what, but the why of mathematics. “Particularly with maths as a foundation for data analysis, some arrive not even thinking of maths as something that you're supposed to understand. It's sad. They have an entitlement to understand all the maths that they study. What a miserable life to just learn how to do things and not really understand why.”
Carr would love for maths to be seen as something more creative that can be studied just for sheer enjoyment. She said: “What makes me sad is that people don't see maths as a subject that is as beautiful as art or English, that can't move you or make amazing pictures or beautiful images and it does.”
Thankfully for Dickerson, the National College for Digital Skills has a cross-pollination approach to the design of the curriculum.
"We leverage the students' programming skills to develop a rich understanding."
“What makes us unique and why I love teaching here so much is that we get to leverage the students’ programming skills to develop that real rich understanding of maths and stats. I can rely on all of them being able to code some basic Python,” he says.
Therefore, his ability to reveal the beauty of maths is aided by the fact that his students enter class with an understanding of programming. “With students having that algorithmic thinking in place already, being able to experiment and play with numbers and code to make things happen is a great way to approach teaching maths.”
Carr sees coding as a way of bringing maths to life in visual way, as opposed to looking at a piece of paper, and wishes that more people could see how applicable maths and statistics are to everyday life.
"You make a probabilistic model every time you cross the road."
“Everybody says, ‘I am no good at maths,’ but actually you make a probabilistic model every time you cross the road. You just do it and that means that you can do stats in your head. It’s just opening that up,” she explained.
The highlight for Dickerson of teaching at Ada is co-ordinating the three-day infographic challenge in collaboration with Bank of America, which he calls his baby. “We wanted to simulate a whole data pipeline of doing some research, asking some questions, doing the rigorous, technical, statistical analysis, doing it in Python, creating some kind of visualisation - a really high impact infographic and being able to present it and talk about it in front of an audience of experienced professionals.” It has taken place two years in a row and is hosted by the bank.
Prior to joining as a visiting lecturer, Carr was one of those experienced professionals. She still runs her own company and gave a guest lecture earlier in the year. The apprentices she met after her presentation made her realise that should would like to come back to Ada to teach. “Meeting those first set of apprentices and seeing the quality they were, I could see that they’re people you can work with quite easily.”