Teaching Maths: it doesn’t change does it?

Well actually it has changed a lot since the day when I started teaching in 1978. Back then the basic equipment needed by any teacher was a box of sticks of chalk, a red pen, and your mark book.


The chalk we carried around in order to remove any chance that the students might have had to tamper with them in any way. This was a popular trick and one to be avoided wherever possible.


The chalk created clouds of dust which got into my hair and clothes and seemed almost to permeate my skin. Cleaning the board rubber was not a job that I enjoyed and I welcomed any offer to help from an eager year 7 pupil to clean the rubber which usually involved making clouds of dust.

In addition to the basic equipment I had board protractor and compasses which were so difficult to operate. They were large and difficult to hold still on the blackboard and too often the chalk fell out. It also didn’t help that when I was using the equipment I stood with my back to the class obscuring their view. No wonder my pupils found using a protractor so difficult.

Some topics in Mathematics have changed little over the years. The trigonometry that we teach is basically the same as that which was taught 300 years ago. I am sure that the problem shown in a textbook from 1725 would be familiar to the girls now. However the techniques used to calculate the solution will now be very different.

Before 1984 there were no calculators allowed in public examinations and we had none in school. In order to calculate the answer to tricky problems the basic method involved the use of log tables. Many lessons were spent teaching the students how to manage the tables before the skill could be used in any application.


If you were very lucky you might have a slide rule. This was a very sophisticated piece of equipment and students in the top sets were encouraged to have one and displayed them proudly in class. The scales on the rule were logarithmic and the way that they worked depended on the laws of logarithms. The students were not really aware of this. The magic was that it worked more quickly than using their tables.

In the 1960s a move was made to modernise the Mathematics syllabus and in the 1970s  we found ourselves teaching what became known as modern or new maths. The new topics that were taught included Venn diagrams, number bases, topology and matrices. Some of these are still taught in schools today but topology or “rubber-sheet geometry” has yet to make a come-back.

I also taught computing without sight of a computer in the classroom! The students had to enter coded instructions onto cards in pencil. I would then take the cards to the university centre whey they would be encoded onto paper tape and the program would be run with a printout of the results. The following week I would collect the tape and print-outs and take them to my class where they would try to de-bug the program that they had written and write fresh instructions on new cards.

The process took several weeks before the students could finish their program and complete the set task.

In preparing this I was amazed to find out how much has changed since I first started teaching. The use of calculators has enabled students to tackle much harder calculations which means that now we can and do teach a lot more statistics that before. However their algebraic and geometric skills today are less well developed as the curriculum includes more varied topics which take time away from the more traditional teaching. There are plenty of changes to the GCSE that are going on now and new A Level courses set to start in two years’ time. But I am sure that the teaching of Mathematics will continue to evolve. What will it be like in another forty years?


Mrs Cowell, Head of Faculty Mathematics