Maths lessons in secondary schools have changed relatively little in recent decades. Maths teachers tend to spend most of their time standing at the front of the class and asking questions, while pupils listen and copy down notes.
That’s the verdict of new research by academics at the University of Manchester, who have conducted one of the largest ever investigations into maths teaching and learning in English schools.
They questioned more than 13,000 11 to 16-year-olds at 40 secondary schools across the country, as well as more than 100 teachers.
The study found that traditional teaching methods dominate in today’s maths lessons, largely because of time constraints and the pressure to prepare pupils for exams.
The researchers asked youngsters to detail what they did in maths lessons and found that “transmission” activities, where knowledge is transmitted from teachers to pupils, were listed most frequently, particularly as pupils approached years 10 and 11.
“The teacher asks us questions,” was the students’ most common answer, followed by “the teacher tells us which questions or activities to do”. Others cited activities like “we listen to the teacher talk about the topic” and “we copy the teacher’s notes from the board.”
The least common answers included “we do projects that include other subjects” and, surprisingly, “we use computers”.
The study also found that pupils who said maths was their favourite subject at school reported lower levels of “transmission” teaching than youngsters who said maths was their least favourite subject.
Dr Maria Pampaka, one of the authors of the report, emphasised that the study’s aim was to inform better practice and not to criticise teachers.
“Teachers we spoke to acknowledge what we are finding,” she said.
“Most of them say ‘we would prefer to do more of the non-transmission activities, but because of the pressure of preparing pupils for exams and the pressure of time, we cannot’.
“As you go up the year groups towards GCSE, there does seem to be more transmission-type teaching. Teachers have to get through the content of the curriculum and even if there are a lot of things they would like to do in lessons, often they do not have the time.”
The study, entitled Teaching and Learning Practices in Secondary Mathematics: Measuring teaching from teachers’ and students’ perspectives, was presented to the British Educational Research Association’s annual conference earlier this month.