Making maths accessible for all: Behind the scenes with our writers

A massive 84% of teachers say they have changed how they teach maths in the last year or more. Maths pedagogy is continually shifting as learner needs and resources evolve. So, how do maths authors go about creating a new edition of a well-loved maths series, an entire decade after initial publication?

Here, Nelson Maths authors Karen Morrison and Lisa Greenstein give us a behind-the-scenes look at the processes.

Image shows a desk filled with papers, laptops, and coffee cups. The working area for Nelson Maths authors.
Work in progress: Planning Nelson Maths

Q: Where do you start, as authors, with planning a new edition? 

Lisa: The funny thing is, to plan this edition, we met at the OUP offices in March 2020, days before the world locked down. It was a strange time, with people suddenly all disappearing to work at home while we sat sketching plans and scribbling ideas about the changes we wanted to see in the books.

Karen: We met with our Publisher, Faye, and members of the Marketing, Editorial, and Production teams. We wanted to get them thinking about their own ‘maths story’ – how they think of their own relationship with maths.  When we got people trying out different mental strategies, they relaxed and had these lightbulb moments where they said things like ‘oh, I never thought about it like that, that’s a good way to do it,’ and ‘I got a different answer, what did you do?’ That made it easy for us to explain how maths education has developed and changed.

Q: What would you say are the main changes since 10 years ago, when the previous edition was written?

Lisa: Ten years ago, the buzzword was problem-solving. Teachers already had a sense of wanting to move away from drill and practice towards something that gave students tools to solve problems in creative ways… but there wasn’t a lot of commonly-used vocabulary around how to do that. Today we have so much more awareness of what it means to think mathematically; we talk about questions with an open middle, we talk about exploring mistakes. We’ve come such a long way from agitating over whether kids could remember the 7 times table!

Q: And how did you translate “thinking mathematically” onto the page?

Karen: Well, to help develop the vocabulary of mathematical thinking, and to build growth mindset tools into the course, we decided to start each year with a short unit called Think maths. This aims to set the tone and make it clear that we value mistakes and learn from them.

A page preview of a year 4 Think Maths section of the book
Think Maths example from Year 4

Lisa: When we develop a primary maths course for children, we are really thinking about how best to start them on a lifelong journey with maths. We are covering traditional bases of number sense, sorting, measuring, identifying shapes. But we’re also celebrating exploration and investigation; developing a sense of playfulness and fun, as well as a willingness to struggle when things get tricky. We had several arguments with more traditional proof readers’ who made comments like ‘this is too difficult – the answer isn’t obvious!’ or ‘too hard for this level – there are multiples answers’, and we had to remind them that this was part of our intention – to introduce challenge and struggle!

Karen: We don’t always know what children know or understand and when we teach maths, we have to encourage discussion and debate in order to find out what and how they are thinking.

Q: Stimulating that level of discussion and openness means changing the way the maths content is written. Can you give teachers more insight into how you change it in this direction?

Lisa: For me, the biggest change in the way we write maths content now is the shift towards asking big, open-ended questions at the beginning – before teaching kids a given algorithm or formula. You don’t want to start off by telling them how to do something, and then asking them to do it. You want to start off by posing a question they can genuinely grapple with. In the books, we pose questions like this example, which includes mixed units, reasoning and thinking, justifying your answer, and solving a problem that can have different solutions – and yet it doesn’t seem frightening or off-putting and that allows for everyone to feel included and encourages them to share their ideas.

A page preview of a Year 5 measurement lesson
Measurement lesson for Year 5

Q: Can you tell us more about how growth mindset helps to make maths lessons more inclusive?

Lisa: Jo Boaler’s work has been a big influence on our thinking, and it’s really encouraging to both of us to hear how often teachers talk about growth mindset and embrace it in their classrooms. Put simply, a growth mindset is about the realisation that there is no such thing as “good at maths”; our brains have incredible plasticity, and learning is a process of stretching ourselves through the struggle of doing something that seems difficult – impossible even – at first. So children can learn that this sense of struggle is ok; that it’s fine (and necessary even!) to find maths difficult. The difficulty is not a sign of failure; it’s a sign of learning.  

Karen: Stanford University has done work with Carol Dweck on mathematical mindset and discovered that a fixed mindset is often found in high-achieving girls, and this is really limiting because it makes them give up if they can’t do something, effectively closing the door to great achievements in maths. Similarly, the interventions Jo Boaler and her team have carried out with struggling students in disadvantaged communities have shown that a more flexible approach and questions that genuinely make students think, increase engagement, and lead to improved academic performance.

A page preview of an activity showing numbers visually

The Think and Share features are designed to make maths accessible to everyone by providing a non-threatening entry point into the topic. Beyond that, we’ve also worked hard to provide a range of different contexts for learning and we’ve tried to offer different approaches and methods to encourage students to adapt the ones they find easier to understand and use while accepting that there are even more ways than we can show.

We’ve tried to draw examples of excellence from different cultures and countries and selected images that different students can relate to.

Q: Are there any other sources of inspiration that you felt influenced by? Or anecdotes that give insight into the process?

Lisa: Another wonderful aspect of developing content now is social media, specifically for maths educators. Just following a few hashtags – #mathteachersofinstagram, #mathsadventure, #numberchat, or #iteachmath – can turn up such a wealth of information and knowledge.  Teachers having conversations on how to cultivate a growth mindset in the classroom; teachers sharing moments of challenge or success from their own classroom experience; educators sharing online resources and conferences and courses.

I know social media has its detractors, but ten years ago, you just didn’t have access to all this shared knowledge and experience (from people like @witenry and Samira Mian). And I think that richness translates into the books we write.

Lisa: Recently we got an email from our publisher, Faye. She’d been reading the final proofs and had clipped a few things that made her laugh, made her think, and gave her ideas for developing mathematical thinking skills with her own child. It was great to hear that she’d enjoyed the books, and really, that’s a key aspect of this series – enjoyment, engagement, and developing maths skills – if we can do that then we’ve done our job and that will be reflected in improved student attitudes and performance.

Faye (left), Karen (right)

Nelson Maths is a rigorous, whole-school programme for teaching and learning maths from early years through to the end of primary education. Written for learners across the world, it enables all children to start and sustain a lifelong journey with maths. Learn more here >>