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Maths in science - and science in maths - is a two-way street

By Stephen Lyon posted 20-10-2021 17:20

  

Ofsted’s research review for science, published in April 2021, makes for interesting reading.

Pleasingly, there is a section highlighting that there should be ‘coherence between mathematics and science’. The review goes on to advocate that ‘subject leaders should work together to understand how and when knowledge taught in their respective subjects is similar and different.’ 

The more I work with science teachers to understand the mathematics content in the science curriculum, the more apparent it becomes that there is no ‘quick fix’ to students being able to apply their mathematics skills and knowledge in science. It is also clear that there is a real need for mathematics teachers and science teachers to work together for the benefit of their students.

This need is illustrated in the recent ‘Mathematics guidance: Key Stage 3’ publication. It advises that standard form be taught in maths in the summer term of year 9. From a mathematics curriculum point of view, this makes sense, as it builds upon prior knowledge covered in year 7. But from a science teacher perspective, this is too late. Students will meet standard form in their science lessons well before they meet it in maths in year 9. 

So how can we work more closely? When beginning on this journey, the following questions are useful for starting points for discussion:

  • Awareness: are science teachers aware of what is taught in mathematics, and when it is taught? Are maths teachers being aware of the mathematics demands in science and when mathematics is required?
  • Methods: do all maths teachers use the same methods? Do all science teachers use the same methods? Is there consistency both within and across departments?
  • Language/Notation: do we use the same language and notation? Where we do not, is it acknowledged?
  • Resources: are there any mathematics resources that can be used in science lessons? Which science examples can be used in mathematics lessons?

I agree with the majority of Ofsted’s research review for science; it is clear that there is a need for collaboration between mathematics and science teachers. However, there is one section I do take issue with; where it states that ‘mathematics teachers have less to gain than science teachers’ from collaboration. From my own experience, every time I work with science teachers I learn something new about how mathematics is applied in science, knowledge which I can use to better my mathematics teaching.

Change takes time and needs to be embedded in practice for it to be long-lasting and effective. That is why I look forward to working with mathematics and science teachers once again at the National STEM Learning Centre in York where we will once again explore the mathematics in science and the science in mathematics, and how the subjects can work.

We have a wider range of residential CPD taking place to tackle the maths content required to teach various science subjects so you can choose your subject below:

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01-11-2021 10:46

HI @Michael McEllin - just to say thank you for your passionately argued points. Lots of us in the science and maths teaching community are aware of the issues and as you can see from Steve's post there are things in place to try to make stronger links between science and maths teaching in schools.  BUT it is good to see Ofsted formally recognising it as something for schools to work.  ​

27-10-2021 10:26

As a primary computing and science lead I feel that liaising with the maths lead is extremely valuable! From explaining binary to identifying algorithms for our GDS Children. 

I don't understand how STEM can be present effectively in primary if the maths and computing/science lead don't work together!

22-10-2021 11:27

Why does it take an Ofsted report to state the blindingly obvious. I have spend my career doing computational physics and have been a STEM ambassador since the early days of the program, so I do not bring a teacher's perspective. I have, however, disputed with people who do not see the relevance of school maths ("When will I ever need to solve a quadratic equation? When will I ever use trig?") I do know why do need to do maths at school, and those students who do not take pleasure in maths for its own sake must surely benefit from being able to see more clearly its relationship to what the world needs. For, our modern world runs on mathematics to a degree that few people appreciate (possibly even some maths teachers). That is why mathematicians are now amongst the most highly paid current graduates. You cannot go through a supermarket till, or order from Amazon without triggering a cascade of algorithms that pull stuff through just-in-time supply chains. Every time you cross a bridge or step into a car or a plane you are relying on sophisticated mathematical analysis. And of course, there are few branches of mathematics that did not originate in the need to address a practical (often scientific) problem. So, of course, maths teachers themselves would benefit from knowing more about how their subject is inextricably woven through other areas of science. www.mcellin.me.uk

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