As I write it’s 30 days on from the Edexcel GCSE maths exam and people are still openly trolling Hannah about her sweets on Facebook and Twitter. It’s not the fact of where the apostrophe is placed – or even that the premise goes against every school’s healthy eating policy – but rather, the perceived complexity of the question that has left hundreds of students, parents and even teachers taking to social media in a fashion unseen before in terms of a maths question. National newspapers wrote about it and followed up with maths quizzes to test the nation… think the level of skills required to gain a Brownie badge in maths.
It’s not really news, though. There have always been maths questions like Hannah’s sweets that cause a bit of a kerfuffle. Last year we had Kevin’s pigs – and don’t you recall the recent dilemma about Cheryl’s age that set social media alight (but which any 23 year old Korean child could untangle with ease)? And besides, nobody questioned the cheesy volume problem later in the same GCSE paper, which many say was considerably harder than Hannah and her sugar rush/dental issues.
As I see it, there are three key issues here:
- Thinking skills
Issue 1: The context
Writing maths exam questions is an art form akin to the skill of a tattoo artist. You have to get it just right so that people can see for what it is, from all angles. There’s quite often an element of pain involved as well as some blood, sweat and tears. Candidates are very unlikely ever to gain 100% in an exam so there has to be a spread of graded questions and contexts, of course. But do they really have to be so obscure and unreal?
The problem with context is that someone, somewhere will always lack the life skills to determine what the context is about and its application in real life, making it an unfair test of mathematical thinking. If Hannah’s sweets had been a question based around bacterial growth it would have been deemed to be too complex a context and not accessible to 16-year-olds. So we have a plethora of questions about ladders leaning against walls for health and safety angles and six-sided spinners which you only seemingly use within a GCSE maths exam.
In any exam paper you will always get students who do not understand the context, in any subject – what a patio is (no, it doesn’t rhyme with ratio), or what four candles means – and this is especially difficult for EAL students or those with issues on the autistic spectrum. I always remember the story of a student who had to write a letter to Mary; his problem was, he didn’t actually know anyone called Mary so how could he possibly write to her? After much persuasion he finally wrote a letter to Mary for his exam… but then insisted on an envelope and stamp so he could actually post it. I also remember a student with a braille paper being given a maths question starting “... as you can see from the bar chart”; but that’s another issue, over which the exam board, frankly, should have been ungraded. Awarding Bodies do get things wrong and that is what Ofqual is for – to regulate. But there was nothing wrong in the question of Hannah and her cola cubes.
Issue 2: Revision and exam preparation
Much of Year 11 revision is focused around past papers and practice questions that have gone before, which is fine until Hannah enters the room with her sweets. Many students will have never come across that type of question in the half term days of fun revision at a Holiday Inn near you (with pizza on tap), or during Saturday School before the exam. In fact, according to Mark Dawes, unless you go all the way back to 1984 you will not find a question quite like Hannah and her rhubarbs and custards.
In the exam factory production line that our school measures seems to support, and with such pressure to get our young people to perform like trained monkeys for a test, this question had them hit a brick wall at 100 miles an hour in a timed exam, having only covered half the distance. They all cried out in the only way they could – via social media – and in this blame culture society where everything that happens is someone else’s fault then the backlash unfortunately hit the teachers and school leaders and exam writers and Awarding Bodies. No doubt we will have the cold callers cashing in: “Have you been affected by the exam question involving Hannah and her sweets? You may qualify for a Crunchie; phone n2 - n - 90 = 0”
Issue 3: Linking thinking skills
As A* questions go I reckon Hannah’s sweets was a good one (but what do I know – I don’t write exam questions). It combined two areas of maths however, and students struggled to make the link and think about the skills involved. The resilience and perseverance required to unfold the problem were missing for a lot of those students who were so dismissive and bitter about it on Twitter afterwards. In many current schemes of work, topics are taught in isolation and the expectation is that questions will be set with topics similarly discrete. Never shall probability meet algebraic proof as it did here. That is a no-no and a faux-pas for many teachers.
Yet maths is a creative, interconnected subject where the most complex elements start off with simple representations and knowledge; see the journey from an equilateral triangle to exact trigonometric ratios to exemplify that. Maybe the problem is the lack of suitably experienced maths practitioners currently teaching in the classroom. Combined with a general malaise in our cultural attitude to maths then this leads me to think that anyone talking, tweeting, ranting or writing about maths, good or bad, should be engaged in conversation forthwith. If nothing else, Hannah has encouraged literacy across the maths curriculum.
As teachers of maths we do have to be conscious of the backlash. Being proficient with numbers has economic benefits for every one of us. 40% of yr 11 don’t make the grade in maths – meaning grade C, or third place. That’s an awful lot of students who don’t get contexts and still can’t link and think maths as that big, fat GCSE approaches over the horizon. If they don’t like Hannah they surely won’t appreciate her sister Anna who’s arriving in 2017 in an exam series near you, probably leaning a ladder against a wall… unless we give them the skills of connection they need to put her in her place.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julia Smith is a teacher trainer with Suffolk and Norfolk ITT and ACER (Association of Colleges) with a maths specialism. She is also a maths author and prolific on Twitter as @tessmaths. Julia straddles both secondary and further education, being Chair of Governors at Writtle College.