Learning Together

Over the last 9 months I have been penpalling with James, a student studying for a Masters in Maths (he loves everything from the history of geometry to application of ODEs to engineering, but specialises in Number Theory), while also a prisoner at HMP Grendon. In order to go to Grendon you have to volunteer. Prisoners have the power to ask fellow inmates to leave, if they become too antisocial. Grendon is specifically a therapy prison (art, physco-drama, poetry, music, gym…).
Today I was lucky enough to get the day off school to go celebrate his graduation from Learning Together. Learning Together is a collaboration between the prison and Cambridge University. Students, from both institutions, meet once a week for 9 weeks to discuss, listen to lectures, write essays. They can study Criminology or Literary Criticism.

Note plenty of time for mingling and reflecting
Here are some observations from the day:

  • The room was so supportive of friends as they took to the stage to share their experiences of learning. Learning as messy, difficult, rewarding. No unkindness ever hinted at, such ,warmth and love from everyone. 
  • I watched as groups of learners, from university and prison, bantered away, completely at ease with their friends. When we used to go in for a day’s singing workshop this level of collaboration was never quite reached.
  • Learning or Togetherness – which is the more important? Learning about the academic definition of Legitimacy or being open to people from seemingly different worlds to yours?
  • Ruth and Amy, co-founders of the scheme, are an incredible team. Great vision, drive, humour. They believe completely in what they are doing, so humbling and great to see! (FOFO – “full on or f*&^ off”)
  •  By the end of the day I was unable to accurately play the game “University or Prison?”. Nor did I want to. Everyone was a learner.
  • Ruth spoke about the close relationship between brilliance and brokenness. In order to reach academic brilliance you must first become aware of and accept the ways in which you are broken, and the ways in which our society is broken.

I finally met James! Former professional wrestler, tapestry-artist, number theorist, beard-nurturer. Quiet, kind, fascinating. In a room full of bustling conversation we, the nerds, sat in a corner and worked through some geometry problems, getting confused about scale factors and applications of Pythagoras. 

Our scribbles – we made friends through a problem…

We spoke about education in prisons. Despite the lip-service, there is only funding in prisons for English and Maths to Level 2 (equivalent of a C at GCSE). If you want to o beyond this, you can study through distance-learning with NEC for A levels, or with the Open University for degrees. Four phone conversations with a tutor, and many lonely nights wading through textbooks. 
46% of prisoners have literacy that is below that expected of an 11 year old (three times the proportion in the general population). For Maths, 52-65% (depending on sources) have numeracy that is below that expected of an 11 year old (shockingly for the general population it is still 49%). 80% of prisoners reject education (I couldn’t find the equivalent stat for the general population, or what this statement really means). 

Learning Togehr: Maths?

James and I would like to set up a scheme, similar to the ones for Criminology/Literary Criticism, but for Maths. Should we focus on numerical competency or instil a deep love of the subject? James spoke passionately about this, taking the words out of my mouth – “Give them the love and they will go away and learn the nuts and bolts as a conesequence”. Prisons provide basic numeracy education, lets give something that only we can provide. (Compare this to the excellent One to One Maths Charity, where prisoners teach each other basic numeracy). One idea would be to organise an intense 1 week summer school, during the 2 week slot in the summer when therapy sessions do not run.
Learning Together is so successful because it brings two groups of people together, who would not normally meet. Who would our second group be, given we were thinking of doing this in the summer holidays? Students about to start their first year of uni? Students at local adult education colleges? Old peoples’ homes? Staff at the prison?
James taught me an excellent phrase – it is “quicker to plait fog” than to use the prison computers. No graphing software to be used here then… He taught me about partition theory and the maths of juggling (originally developed for its own sake, and now with applications to computing).

We spoke of primes…

A levels – opening doors or enlarging brains?

I am thinking of which type of exam to work towards in the new sixth form. In simplistic terms, the one that students probably will do better at, or the one that is more mathematically genuine. Here are some thoughts:

  • Secondary school teachers often are frustrated by the crazy grade inflation they perceive in students Yr6 SATS marks. “No way is ____ a Level 5” we mutter. The accusation is not of cheating, but of coaching to the test. It is unhelpful in secondary school, giving an inaccurate picture of the students and providing unrealistic GCSE targets. If we want accurate marks from primary school, then surely we should give accurate marks from secondary school.
  • Inaccurate grades are not only unhelpful for teachers/universities, they are unhelpful for the student. If a university course requires an A grade, what it really requires is a student capable of A-grade level thinking (if such a thing exists…).
  • I asked my mum (a research scientist) about this. She cannot see any conflict – “Of course you should take the intellectually honest and challenging route”. Set high expectations and students will meet them.
  • I asked MK (an American) about this. In America standardised tests are… standardised. No choice of exam board. Individual teachers/schools don’t have to make this horrible choice, between honesty and what they might perceive as helping their students by opening doors with good grades.

In summary – if a student does not deserve an A grade (whatever that might mean), then playing the system to get them an A grade is delaying failure. Choose the more challenging course, make brains bigger, dream big!

OCR (B) Exams

In conjunction with MEI, OCR have devised a new spec. Features I like:

  • The large data set is comparative information about countries over time. Great for highlighting social inequalities and getting students debating.
  • The third paper includes mathematical comprehension – read a new bit of Maths and then answer questions based on it. Excellent for encouraging mathematical independence.
  • Problem-solving questions abound, with lots of interpretations (that are not hoop-jumping but ensure deep understanding)


Edit: KS says “Surely we can teach deep problem-solving in lessons while also using a less mathematically challenging exam board?” A response: our systems should nudge everyone to always keep our mathematical integrity. GCSE interventions often lose sight of the beauty of Maths, because they can. If GCSE exam questions all required deep problem-solving then rote-learning how to rationalise a denominator would become less tempting.