This week we had the opportunity to sit down with our wonderful Maths Co-ordinator, John Kennedy, to talk about how to engage students in this subject at boarding school and all of the exciting things that he is doing with the Brillantmont Maths programme. Don’t miss his enthusiastic insights and great activity ideas for making maths fun, understandable, and applicable.
Maths is often the subject that people find difficult, how do you make it accessible and understandable to the students?
I think it is pretty much my number one priority to make sure that the students leave my class or leave the boarding school with a love of learning and a love of mathematics. That makes a huge difference. I know that people can suddenly close down or be switched off for mathematics if they find it too difficult or they have had a bad experience, making themselves feel like they can’t solve something. So I try to make sure I think about the background of the students and how maths connects to the real world. I want to make sure it seems useful and not too abstract or difficult. I have met so many adults that say ‘oh I was terrible at maths’ or ‘I can’t do maths’ and it is obvious that they haven’t really progressed as far as they should have. I want to make sure that my students have a positive feeling about maths.
I want every single one of my students to leave thinking maths is amazing and useful. They may not all become mathematicians, but they will use maths in whatever they do for the rest of their lives and think positively about that.
How do you do that? What are some examples of how you make maths connect to the real world?
I try to find links with other subjects. One of the best elements of maths you can do that with is statistics. Statistics has loads of practical applications and you can link it to sports, biology, physics, geography… I also like to link to things in the news or other things that the students know about already. Algebra can be a bit tricky to link, but geometry is easy: you can just look out the window and you see geometry everywhere. I try and help my students to see that. I think it is my job to help reveal mathematics in the world around the students.
Last year you took a mathematics trip to Venice. How did you use that trip to celebrate maths?
We looked for the underlying mathematics in the interesting and beautiful surroundings, the buildings, the architecture, and the way that things worked. The focus was on trigonometry since I took the older students. They had spent a lot of time studying trigonometry and geometry and I now wanted to show them how it was not just about a bunch of triangles on paper, its about the elevation of buildings, the distance to the stars and between the moon and the sun… We were able to do that by using the tallest buildings we could find in Venice and measuring the angles between them, then predict the distances between towers, and finally prove that it was true. It was wonderful to do that in such a nice place. And we didn’t just look at trigonometry, we looked at how the tide was affecting the city, how people moved around, and how the weather was changing using statistical data which allowed the students to think about ecological aspects of the preservation of the city. Check out our video we created for the trip!
Highlights of our school trip to Venice. 30th May - 3rd June 2016.
How is technology affecting mathematics?
I like using technology in my classroom, but I do not think it is essential for learning. It can be useful and focus some students attention though. Students live in a world of technology and they are already pretty good at using their phones and the internet, but I try to encourage my students to take a step back away from that too and think for themselves. If they are looking for an answer to a problem, I want them to have the skills to do that themselves without having to search on wikipedia.
You are also a teacher at the boarding school who is involved in extra-curricular activities. Can you talk about how you connect with students outside the classroom?
I love to help students solve problems so I try to run as many small puzzle competitions as I can. Sometimes I try to make it accessible to the entire school but often it is just between a small group of particularly interested students. I also help to run the Chaplin House on the boarding side of school. The mission of the house is to try to create a sense of belonging at Brillantmont. Chaplin House has loads of really positive students who love being part of the Chaplin team. We do a whole range of activities: sporting activities, creative activities… The other day we were trying to do a painting. We had six different canvases and we split a picture up into six and each group painted their piece without seeing the whole until we put it all together in the end. It was a lot of fun! These kinds of activities really bring the House together.
Mr. Kennedy does an exceptional job of making what one often thinks of as a rather dry subject, incredibly creative! He is always looking out for new ways to connect the real world with numbers in ways that will make the field of mathematics intriguing and fun for students. This approach contrasts with the more traditional, perhaps older generation’s ideas of maths that has not always been creative.
Do you have memories of Mr Kennedy's classes? Or other experiences of learning maths at boarding school? Share with us below in the comments or on social media!