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Disengaged teenagers get hooked on algebra -

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Robyn Williams: And last week we featured maths in various forms, and Gab McIntosh was listening and has yet another view on ways to inspire young people to take science and maths more seriously, despite the obstacles.

Gab McIntosh: My school, Eagle Arts and Vocational College, is a school for teenagers who have been asked to leave their previous school or who refuse to go to school. And our category with the Commonwealth Department of Education is 'Special Assistance'. Kids come to us for many reasons, but anger issues, anxiety, depression, as well as anti-social behaviour are the most common. We have three campuses: one in Western Sydney, Bligh Park, one in Broken Hill, and a new campus on the central coast of New South Wales. Over half of our kids are Indigenous. We cater for students in years 9, 10, 11 and 12; so from 14 years of age onwards.

Each campus has about 30 kids and about seven staff. We run four days a week, not five. We are an alternative school in that we have no exams or assignments or formal tests of any kind. Homework is optional. You have to ask for some to receive any. Although we are a private school, there are no fees or charges of any kind.

Most of our students have missed a great deal of school by the time they get to us, so there are big gaps in their knowledge. This is particularly so for maths. Generally speaking, 90% of our kids loathe schoolwork in all its forms. This distaste for schoolwork seems to come from a number of sources, including poor literacy and numeracy, low self-esteem, poor test results at previous schools, social disadvantage, and personalities that suit hands-on activities rather than theory. Many also have a secret fear that they are actually pretty dumb and that is why they have ended up at a school like Eagle Arts. Just one of my kids can wreck a regular science or maths lesson in a mainstream school. In fact that is what many of them have done before they got to us.

Because our kids enjoy hands-on-type activities, we usually run one or two kitchen science experiments each week. These they do enjoy, but to tell the truth, these lessons have a tendency to descend into anarchy. A bit of anarchy is okay with us, it actually suits us, but I'm never sure how many have absorbed the scientific principle behind the experiment as their attention waxes and wanes unpredictably. They can parrot the point of the lesson but this is not the same as genuine understanding. Still, we persevere as something good is happening with kitchen science. There is a genuine interest in it.

Some time ago I decided to do something out of the box. I decided I would teach algebra to all of my students. Remember, about half of my students do not know the answer to 12 divided by three, and there are big gaps in their knowledge.

My own background. I am actually a trained English-drama teacher. I started off doing a science degree many moons ago, so I have some maths but I was just terrible at science. I like maths too, an important point for anyone who is going to teach maths. Prior to Eagle Arts and Vocational College, I was at a school called Blacktown Youth College. It is based in Mt Druitt in Western Sydney, I was principal there too, and this is where I began the experiment of teaching algebra to highly disengaged teenagers.

Today, algebra is the most successful lesson that I teach. Everyone can do at least some and get it right. But the amazing thing is that they concentrate on it so well. The room is as quiet as a pin because everyone is trying really hard to get it. They ask meaningful questions, they do get what is going on, and are not just copying some steps laid out for them by me. Some students cannot answer 17 minus 4 but they can all solve 2a + 2a + 2b - b - d. Admittedly the students who are good at maths go ahead of the rest quickly, but those who cause chaos do not when algebra is taught. The other students chip them if they try it on.

Here is what I do:

1. I tell the kids algebra is terribly hard, done at university and is probably beyond them. Yes, I use reverse psychology. I tell them, nicely, they will not be able to manage it. Their instant reaction is defiance. That is good. I want them to feel defiant. They are thinking 'I am not going to be proven dumb yet again, no more. I will prove this teacher wrong.' Unconsciously they trust me not to take them into treacherous mathematical waters. That helps too. There is never more than 12 in the class and we do classes of four for those who really can master algebra at the high levels.

2. I tell them the letters stand for objects so a is for apple, c is for carrot and x is for an X-ray machine. Explain that you cannot stick a carrot inside an apple or an apple inside an X-ray machine, so a + a + x = 2a + x. You cannot just vanish the x into thin air, it has to be kept in the equation. After all it's really an X-ray machine so it will not just vanish unless you do something to it.

3. I mark them five at a time. Take it slow. Be willing to repeat and repeat. Lots of praise when they get it right. The looks on their faces when they get these equations right has to be seen to be believed. They swell with pride. Other subjects do not have this strong impact upon them.

I don't know what this all means. Someone should look into it. I am a good teacher, but not exceptional, so it cannot be just my teaching skills. There is a lot of phooey talked about maths teachers. There are plenty of good maths teachers around but the system makes it hard for them. Classes should be no more than 15 students, and let the maths teachers teach what they think is needed, then and there. Throw the curriculum away and trust the teachers. Ask the kids too. What maths do they want to learn? Their views matter too. Let go of all the testing. We want kids to feel that they can master maths. It is not the subject that will bring them down, belittle them every time. Tell the bureaucrats and academics to take a hike. They know little of the every-day classroom

PS: Just got asked by an Indigenous student for some homework in the holidays. Maths homework, of course!

Robyn Williams: Miraculous. Gab McIntosh, principal of Eagle Arts and Vocational College in Broken Hill, Western Sydney and Central Coast.