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Successful learning formula

20 November 2015

Oliver Christophers (left) and Rio Hirano (right) are fond of mathematics. Teacher Valentina Chapovalova in the middle.

The audience in Room 2004 at the Ångström Lab are markedly younger than the university students these chairs usually bear. But they all sit in silence when teacher Valentina Chapovalova reviews the evening’s assignment in the Maths Club for children aged 8–11.

The 12 boys and eight girls listen attentively and study the blackboard. Now and again, they raise eager hands in the hope of being chosen to give the answer.

‘How would you place the mirrors in this box so that the laser light coming ink goes out through the holes on the opposite side? Does anyone know how to do it?

A ten-year-old boy is the lucky one chosen to step out in front. The box on the board is soon full of his angled lines and arrows in various directions.

‘Does this solution work?’ asks Valentina Chapovalova.

‘Yes!’ the children reply in unison.           

One pupil has another solution that turns out to be just as workable. And that’s exactly the point, Chapalova says after the lesson.

‘Every way of solving a problem is welcome. There’s not just one way: there should be four! In the review I usually ask “Did anyone have a different number of mirrors?’ or “Did anyone put the mirrors in another way?” Then the children think divergently.

‘You learn so much from explaining your thoughts. My aim is to get the children to reason logically and think critically about both their own and other people’s solutions. For me, the most fun thing is when a pupil thinks of something I haven’t come up with before. Then I feel successful as a teacher.’

Uppsala municipality is backing the Maths Club initiative. The project started in autumn term 2014 after the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found Swedish pupils’ maths skills to be declining. The municipality’s education administration and the Department of Mathematics at Uppsala University started collaborating, with Chapovalova as the teacher and project leader.

‘We received 150 applications from pupils in Years 2 to 9 around the municipality, but by the spring term the number had risen to over 400! Altogether, we were 14 student teachers for nine groups.’

Autumn term admissions were, however, limited to 240 pupils and eight groups, to ensure support for pupils who most needed challenges. Granted, the number of attendees usually falls as the term goes on but Chapovalova points out, laughing, that ‘if school wasn’t compulsory, there’d be fewer still in it too by the end.’ Attending the Club is voluntary, and there are no performance requirements.

‘We simply try to have a relaxed atmosphere and point out that getting it wrong is OK. They do as much as they want to and they can choose what order to do the sums in.

‘Recently,’ she continues, ‘the focus has been on supporting gifted children. And of course the Maths Club gives kids who are under-stimulated at school a chance to take on bigger challenges. But I avoid using the word “gifted”, since it’s mostly connected with interest. It doesn’t matter how good they are when they get here: if they have the will and the curiosity, there’s no limit to how good they can be.’


Q&A with a few pupils

Why do you want to learn more maths? To be able to read medicine and become a doctor. Maths and science are my favourite subjects. (Yasmin Abdullahi, aged 11)

What’s so cool about maths? You have to think logically, and I like that. It’s not difficult if you just solve a problem step by step. (Alva Norén Evelius, aged 10)

Why are you here at the Maths Club? It’s fun. I like maths and solving problems. (Jennifer Thor, aged 10)

What’s so cool about maths? Multiplication tables. When you do them it’s so quiet and you can concentrate. I came here because I wanted to learn more maths. And I don’t just want to sit at home on the sofa. (Rio Hirano, aged 10)

Why are you here at the Maths Club? Maths and difficult sums are fun. At school, not all the sums are difficult. I like problem-solving most. (Elsa Nordlund, aged 9)

You can read more about the Maths Club, but in Swedish only, on the blog.