Creative student led maths teaching: where I start

When I start maths tutoring, I often find students and parents have negative concepts of maths, and students are (rightfully and naturally) wary of tutors.

The best way to start is always by building rapport and demonstrating value.

Give them a reason to listen to you.

I’ll say hello, introduce myself, ask a student what their interests are, what it is about their interests that they like, and then offer them the chance to ask me anything at all about myself, the world or the future.

I only promise that I’ll give them an answer to the best of my ability. If they ask unknowable questions about the future I can let “fate” (maths) decide:

This is a powerful offer. I used to have to answer crazy questions every day; it’s part and parcel of being a form tutor, where you will be asked questions you couldn’t even imagine. (“What would happen if I ate the chewing gum under the desk?”)

Answering their questions allows you to model many great traits: patience, openness, honesty, boundaries (“I can’t answer that, it isn’t an appropriate question”), inquisitiveness in the face of ignorance (“I don’t know what RFID stands for, lets look it up”) and growth mindset (“I don’t know how to play the violin, but if I wanted to here’s where I would start!”)

It fuels a desire for learning and discovery, while building the rapport necessary for encouraging resilience. This resilience always starts with me saying: “I don’t do the world’s best drawings or have the neatest handwriting”

I may have tried to claim that this was my car

I make sure they know that the important thing is that I don’t let it bother me, and I know I’ll get better with practise.

Bad Hair, Don't Care - Men Tank Top | HashtagBay
If the worst thing someone can say about you is that you have bad hair, you must be doing really well as a person!

In the lesson shown at the top of this page I answered the following questions:

  • “How do cars work?”
  • “How do credit cards work?”
  • “How do brakes in a car work?”
  • “Why do cars stop slowly, but wheelchairs can stop fast?”

In answering these questions I got to cover all manner of topics:

  • science: energy 
  • science: forces
  • science: mechanisms
  • maths: metric units
  • maths: metric unit conversion
  • maths: operations
  • maths: place value
  • maths: estimation
  • maths: problem solving and real life maths
  • maths: written multiplication & the distributive law
  • maths: mathematical mindset & thought processes
  • common sense: what would happen if a person hit a wall at 17m/s (giant skull and crossbones)
How Technology is Changing Math Classrooms for the Better - DreamBox  Learning
Why would anyone want to escape?

By letting students choose the direction, their interest keeps their focus through more challenging questions like:”How can I always be sure I am saying a big number correctly?” (use place value) and “How fast actually is 38 miles per hour?” (let’s use a calculator to find m/s)

It also gives me a chance to ask “How many seconds are there in a day?” (86,400) which I love to follow up with “So is it worth taking at least ten seconds to think through decisions?” (it is)

The important thing to focus on when you teach maths like this, is that everyone can be brilliant at maths, it just requires practice. When you ask students to make estimates, they will regularly surprise you with their intuitive answers. Our brains are wired to give great estimates, but will struggle to do written work, especially when they are not given a reason to do so. A positive mindset is the most important tool in learning maths.

However, it is also important to follow up these activities with practice to consolidate learning. I gave the following advice for this week’s focus:

Positive mindset: everyone is brilliant at maths if they practice
Practicing key skills: multiplication tables
Tools for practise: focus on “low stakes” by checking “how well did you do in this minute, now let’s write a song, rhyme, rap, guide, chant etc that helps us remember. then try again and see if we do better! (I like to do these activities alongside a student, you can tell them you are racing them! if needed give yourself more or harder questions but if you show that you are working to improve on it as well they will be more motivated)

My tutee’s mother tells me she has never seen him so excited to practice times tables!

I also encouraged her to check out Dan Meyer‘s 3 act maths.

3 act maths champions this approach to education: check out this ted talk:

He has an entire google spreadsheet of topics and there are other people who are also creating great resources using these principles. With some practice and growth mindset, you can create them yourself too!

I have found this approach challenging to use regularly in the UK classroom setting, where I was directed to focus on specific, quantifiable and linear progress, but in introducing yourself to a new class, tutoring or home education, it really brings maths to life.

Give it a try!

Interested in learning more about home education? Join Ed 2 Brtus and keep an eye out for an upcoming livestream where I will be modelling a more traditional approach to tutoring. If you are interested in math tutoring, educational coaching or self esteem & emotional resilience mentoring, drop an email to

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