Let's not forget that adults are learners too

Updated: Jul 12, 2020

This piece was first published in the April 2019 edition of Common Denominator. It was my final column as President of the Mathematical Association of Victoria.

What do we want students to get out of their education? The intended outcomes are many and varied. One thing that is commonly identified, however, is an orientation towards lifelong learning. We want students who, beyond their experience at school, are curious about the world and see themselves as capable of further learning in whichever area they choose. Although just the starting point, school is a critical step in this journey.

Two articles relevant to this topic recently caught my eye. They are beautiful reminders that adults are learners too and that the same beliefs we have for young people as learners should apply into the adult years.

In response to online commentary about adults’ mathematical misconceptions and faux-pas, primary teacher Carla Dawson put a call out for us to be more compassionate. When we see someone say that a third of a kilo is more than half a kilo or have trouble calculating change at a cash register, instead of face palm-type reactions, Dawson suggests that we (as maths educators) can be more constructive. One way to do this is by asking ourselves, “What makes sense about their thinking? What would you say or do next if this was a student or a child?” Dawson’s piece brings to light the reality we so often see in schools: that not every child finishes their formal education at the ‘expected level’.

Former editor of The Economist and former deputy governor of the Bank of England, Rupert Pennant-Rea, is an unlikely example of this. Contrary to what you might expect of someone who’s held such esteemed positions, Pennant-Rea’s knowledge and understanding of basic scientific concepts was – until recently – seriously lacking. At age 70, he chose to go back to studying high school science and wrote about his experiences for the Financial Times. Amongst his discoveries was “just how beautiful science is. My particular favourite is the periodic table, which I had never even heard of a year ago.”

Just like Pennant-Rea, we and our students don’t know what we don’t know. When in a formal or informal teaching position, one thing we can do is commit ourselves to supporting learners, no matter their age, with their mathematics education and with their drive for further learning.

I’m proud to say that the Mathematical Association of Victoria is behind this cause. True to its mission of “Valuing maths in society”, the association supports students at all stages of their development and teachers throughout their career. To find out more, head to the website or get in touch (

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