Maths and debating

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There are certain subjects, and certain students, that debating seems particularly well suited too. The potential PPE candidate. The aspiring lawyer. A history lesson on the causes of the first world war. Most English lessons.

Similarly, there are certain students and certain subjects, where the assumption is that debating is ‘not for them’. In an already high-volume and boisterous class, why on earth would you bring in a company called Noisy Classroom?! If a student has a lot of trouble engaging with essays, then surely they will be put off by debating. And of course STEM subjects and debating simply do not mix…

These are all common misconceptions, and later blog posts will talk about the ways in which debating can be used to engage lower-ability students. For now, I want to talk about debating and Maths.

To be a good mathematician, you need to be able to use logic and reason to solve puzzles. You also need to be able to explain your reasoning – we can all remember the Maths teacher’s plea/demand of ‘show your reasoning’!

One great exercise to prompt discussion in Maths is to use the ‘sometimes/always/never’ rule. Students are given a statement and have to decide whether this is true sometimes, always or never. For example…

  • Multiplying by 5 results in a number that ends in 5
  • The angles in a triangle add up to 180 degrees
  • Subtracting by a negative number results in a positive number

This allows students to test theories, challenge ideas and explore the limits of what they do and don’t know. The best learning doesn’t always involve individuals slowly writing away in their maths books – although that is clearly important too.

In my work at Clapton Girls’ Academy, a few maths teachers and I decided to take oracy and maths a step further. Working with a couple of enthusiastic groups in Year 9, I spent a whole lesson on ‘Maths debates’.

First of all, I used Powerpoint slides to prompt very quick group discussions. Then there was a class vote on each topic and a broader class discussion. The topics were

  • Maths is the most important subject
  • We don’t need maths now we have calculators on our phones
  • Maths is not relevant to our everyday lives

For the last slide, I then asked groups to try and list all the ways in which they use maths in an average day.

After this quick warm up, we then divided the class into four groups. Each group was given a different perspective on the future of maths education. Group One argued that Maths GCSE should not be compulsory, that taking Maths into KS4 should be a choice. Group Two defended the status quo, arguing that everyone should study Maths and the current curriculum gives a good theoretical background. Group Three argued that, while Maths should be compulsory, the curriculum should be changed to focus on more practical parts of maths, linking it to computing or statistics. Group Four argued that the Maths GCSE should be abolished, claiming that the prevalence of technology means that we don’t need anymore than a very basic Maths education.

Each group had 20 minutes to come up with as many ideas for their perspective as possible. I encouraged them to be really creative with their thinking, but to use the PEEL (Point, Evidence, Explanation, Link) structure to make sure they justified all their claims.

Groups then took it in turns to give a 3 minute presentation to the class. After that, we had a class vote to decide which group had given the best presentation and most convincing arguments. Finally, there was a quick plenary discussion on why maths education is so important.

This was a really novel and interesting way to engage the students in a broader discussion about their subject and left the students, teacher and myself feeling enthused about both maths and debating!

Have any of you used Debating or Oracy activities in a STEM lesson? Leave a comment below.


Alice Coombes Huntley,
Head of Programmes, The Noisy Classroom

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