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Martin Bamber, AC for Cheshire West, Chester, Halton, Knowsley, Liverpool, Sefton, St Helens, Warrington, Wigan, and Wirral

“I began to like it very much because it was giving me the freedom of thought, which I’m not quite given in school.”

Problem-solving workshops? Problem-solving classes? It’s difficult to find a suitable name for the weekly two-hour sessions that take place at the University of Liverpool and Xaverian College, Manchester each week during term-time. ‘Classes’ suggests something akin to regular mathematics classroom activities – which these are not. ‘Workshops’ implies a leader directing hands-on activities, which is perhaps closer – but these sessions are collaborative and student-led.

The premise of these sessions is that all the activity involves students interacting with other students. There is no teacher to lead the class down a prescribed path, picking up new maths content as they go. There is no syllabus, dictating what a student must learn and by when. Instead, there are problems, carefully selected to offer opportunities for discussion and collaboration. They are loosely themed each week but always offer visions of the connectedness of maths. There are ‘experts’ on-hand to intervene and offer advice if required, but more generally they are present in a social capacity to contribute to the discussion and help the students explore their ideas. Even the times are flexible, with students arriving from 4.30pm onwards for refreshments and leaving by 6.30pm – but before if they so choose.

Some might argue that such a loose arrangement is directionless, and that it flies in the face of the current trend towards measurability and performativity. Students are never formally assessed; evidence of improvement is only available through student reflection. These reflections tend to be perceptive – “time to think” has been a frequent phrase employed to summarise the sessions. When asked to elaborate, students tend to contrast problem-solving sessions with the generally ‘driven’ nature of their regular classes, where assessments are never far away and there is the urge to produce a measurable outcome from each lesson (sometimes each lesson-sub-division).

Of course, if our weekly problem-solving activities are simply providing diversion, allowing certain students to indulge in their chosen hobby, free of charge – and there’s surely nothing wrong in that – it could be seen as a luxury. This argument is perhaps best countered by the words of one of our past students: “…it definitely, definitely helps your normal maths work. Instead of…just trying to remember a formula or a method, I have the confidence to…just think about what I do!”

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