Home > #MTBoS, Education Policy, Maths, Teaching > Do you need a maths degree to teach maths?

Do you need a maths degree to teach maths?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post in shock at the fact that a number of schools in the locality had been teaching rounding wrongly. By this I don’t mean I took issue with their pedagogical approach, but rather that the method of rounding they were teaching was wrong and would result in the wrong answer in some instances. This post received the following comment from Old Andrew (@andrewolduk):

“Is anybody going to raise the obvious issue here that a lot of maths teachers don’t have maths degrees? In recent years the rise of “conversion courses” means that many have a background that isn’t in the least mathematical.”

This stirred up some quite strong feelings on both sides. Sophie Skinner (@miss_skinner) wrote this excellent piece stating her views, and Dave Gale (@reflectivemaths) wrote this piece reflecting his view. Twitter has been buzzing with conversation on the matter, and I wanted to set out my own view on here as, well, 140 characters just isn’t nearly enough to get across what I want to say!

First, I’d like to note that from now on I’m not going to distinguish between strictly maths degrees and ones with a high maths content (i.e. Joint honours, Operational Research, Physics, the whole host of engineering degrees and plenty more) as I feel that those with a high maths content give all the same advantages as a maths degree.

So, do I think you need a strongly maths based degree to teach maths?

There are many levels to this massive question and they all need addressing. Firstly is the background. I know a maths teacher who scraped a C in his own GCSE maths and via a whole host of BTecs, HNCs, HNDs foundation courses etc ended up with a degree equivalent in Accountancy. This was deemed maths-y enough to qualify him for a place on a maths PGSE and he qualified as a maths teacher. He was a pretty good one too, when it came to teaching lower and middle ability pupils at KS3 and 4. I don’t think he’d have been able to teach higher tier GCSE topics, and I certainly don’t think he’d have been able to teach A Level.

I trained with a lady who had a degree in languages, and who repeatedly told me she didn’t like maths, was no good at maths and only wanted to work with year 7 and 8 pupils who suffered with SEN. She didn’t pass the course. I asked her why she had chosen to teach maths rather than languages, and she said it was due to the size of the bursary. She wasn’t the only person on my course who told me explicitly that they weren’t keen on maths and had only chosen to teach it due to the size of the bursary. (I’ve written before on the topic here).

This shows us a real problem, but it is a problem born out of necessity, out of the fact that far too few maths-y graduates are willing to go into teaching. I suppose it is a circular situation. Maths is seen as an important subject, so we need lots of maths teachers to teach it, but the big money professions such as accountancy, investment, finance etc see maths as important and recruit heavily form the maths-y degree pot, leaving teaching as something seen (sadly) by many as a low paid alternative and hence not worth it. Before I digress into a tirade about how this says some terrible things about our society, and how we need to address these issues pronto, I will move back to the topic at hand.

So, what should the requirements be?

1: You must like maths.

I would suggest that no-one should be teaching Maths GCSE if they DON’T LIKE maths. This seems like complete common sense, and surely people reading this will be thinking “Well, duh. Who on earth would become a maths teacher if they don’t like maths?” But I know a few maths teachers who don’t. I don’t think they should be teaching maths. Our job as maths teachers should not be solely to equip people with the numeracy skills to survive (although I agree this is important), but it should also entail inspiring the next generation of mathematicians. Inspiring the next Leonhard Euler, the next Pierre de Fermat, the next GH Hardy, the next Andrew Wiles, the next Colin Beveridge. If people teaching GCSE maths don’t like it, then they won’t inspire the pupils to look at it post 16. For me, this is the most important thing.

2: You must have a good knowledge of maths.

I would suggest that everyone teaching GCSE maths should have a good working knowledge of maths up to A Level. That should be because they have studied maths up to A Level (in whatever form – be it an A Level, or a conversion course). I think those with Maths-y degrees are in a better position. They have spent much longer in the world of maths and have seen where it leads to. But someone with a non maths-y degree who loves maths, reads around the subject, has a good working knowledge of A Level maths can also be excellent. I think that to teach A Level maths, you should have a degree that has a high maths content, or should at least have studied some maths post A Level, whether it be in a degree or additional courses, or even your own private study. Doubly so for Further Maths!

In an ideal world, I would love to see more maths teachers engaged with maths outside the classroom too. I am a fan of recreational mathematics. I regularly attempt puzzles set by wrong but useful, by puzzlebomb, by Dara O’Briain and Marcus Du Sautoy on school of hard sums and a host of other puzzle sites. I’m currently reading Ian Stewart’s, “From Here to Infinity”, and I regularly read maths books. I’m a regular viewer of Numberphile, listener of Wrong but Useful, Allsquared and a number of other maths podcasts, and I’m always keen to watch maths based TV shows and listen to maths based radio shows. These are the things that keep my maths skills sharp, and I feel they add to my ability to teach maths.

In short: Do you need a maths(-y) degree to teach maths? No, but it helps.

Should we be looking at ways to encourage more maths graduates into the profession? Yes, I think we should. But that’s another post, for another day.

  1. March 6, 2014 at 10:14 pm

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. March 8, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Reblogged this on Singapore Maths Tuition and commented:
    Excellent post on teaching Maths.
    The basic requirements for teaching Maths are:
    1: You must like maths.
    2: You must have a good knowledge of maths.

  3. September 21, 2014 at 9:49 am

    Would disagree, I’m what would be considered an excellent mathematician, however I don’t love maths like I once did. I’m now into a much more diverse range of interests but I don’t think it has had a detrimental effect on my teaching.

    • September 21, 2014 at 10:28 am

      Fair play. Would you still say you liked the subject? I don’t think it needs to be an obsession. I myself have a very wide and diverse range of interests.

  4. Vicky Gwosdz
    May 7, 2020 at 1:17 pm

    Good post! I teach year 5 and 6 (that is 16-18yo in Belgium) both in basic and higher math. I don’t have a maths degree (I have a degree in Economics) What I do have is a passion and lifelong obsession with math and I think I can fairly say because of that I know a lot about it. So, no you don’t need a degree, but I would feel more confident if I did 😉

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