Suleiman Ibrahim

Head of Islamic studies & Social studies / Islamic Education Lecturer

How to combine maths with careers education

“Right Year 10, today you are going to be set designers,” Juliet Doyle tells her maths class. 

It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, and this is the last lesson of the day. And yet, 30 pairs of eyes are firmly fixed on Doyle, as she explains that, in pairs, they’ll spend the afternoon designing three sets for a new film. 

For these students, who attend Bexleyheath Academy, part of the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), in south-east London, lessons like this are not out of the ordinary – in fact, they are used to careers education being taught in their maths lessons.

Over the next hour, students get to grips with dimensions and learn how to build a 3D set from a 2D drawing. 

As they pack up their bags at the end of the lesson, Faye turns to her friend Jess and says: “I want to be a set designer now.”

Jess responds: “I’ve got around 30 jobs that I want to do, it’s so difficult to choose”. 

This discussion is music to Doyle’s ears: she wants her students to walk away from her lesson enthused about the possibility of a career in the creative industries. It’s not an objective that other maths teachers might share – but that’s something Doyle wants to change.

Together with Ryan Gibson, the careers lead at AET, careers guidance service, The Careers and Enterprise Company, and a team of creative professionals at film and television studios Pinewood Studios, Doyle, who is also an assistant head and careers lead, has designed a range of lessons that combine maths and careers education.

The lessons, she explains, give pupils an insight into the types of roles on offer in creative industries, and how maths skills are utilised within them. 

The idea to combine these subjects started with a drive to raise aspirations. Although the school is rated “good” by Ofsted today, it has been in special measures twice in the last nine years. And when a new leadership team took over in 2014, they were keen to raise the ambitions of the entire school community.

“Careers isn’t a separate strand in the curriculum, it’s a much wider part of the overall quality of education that students receive,” Doyle explains. “We want them to get great grades, but if they don’t know what’s out there once they’ve got those grades, it’s another barrier.”

However, it’s not about shoehorning careers into any lesson, but identifying where it would fit best. At the heart of all of the lessons, says Doyle, is a commitment to covering parts of the maths curriculum that, historically, have been tough to teach.  

“We worked with the subject network within AET to identify topics in the curriculum that we all felt would really benefit from an approach to teaching and learning like this,” she explains.

“Teachers get the lesson slides, videos and a separate document full of advice and guidance. It’s all very straightforward, and slots directly into the curriculum. Teachers don’t feel like they’re teaching a careers lesson: it’s a maths lesson that develops mathematical understanding, but just in a specific context.”

The lesson around set design, for example, was preceded by ones that built knowledge and skill around 2D and 3D shapes. 

Designing film sets in maths: what does a lesson look like?

So, what does a typical lesson in the scheme look like?

After building up their knowledge of shapes, Doyle’s Year 10 students take part in a lesson that begins with an introduction from set designer Duncan Howell. Via video clip, he explains that, in his role at Pinewood Studios, he uses three-dimensional shapes and objects to alter a space.

Doyle explains, before any set is built, that designers like Howell create two-dimensional drawings of the floor plan, side elevation and front elevation – and she shows the class a set design that Howell has worked on as an example. 

She then encourages students to think about the relationship between 2D and 3D shapes, and asks questions like, if you start with a rectangle in a 2D drawing, what will that shape become in 3D? What would a circle, or a trapezium, look like? 

Next, it’s back to Howell who sets the class their design brief. They need to come up with three sets for a new science fiction film: a hexagonal spaceship control room, a walled garden with space for the spaceship to land, and a games room with a pool table and TV area. 

Working in pairs, the students draw a floor plan, create the elevations of walls and then combine these two drawings into a 3D design.

According to Doyle, lessons like this one are great for engagement – and, she adds, there is scope for students of all abilities to connect with maths in new ways.

“Some students totally dread their maths classes, and it helps them to see it in a totally different light. They would just never think that the world of film and TV would have anything to do with maths,” she explains. 

“For high-ability students, it really makes them question the maths. Often, they like to race through the questions, but this stops them, and encourages them to reflect a little bit more on what the learning means in context.” 

While the school makes no promise that combining maths and careers directly improves maths skills more than a traditional maths lesson would, Doyle is convinced that it can reduce maths anxiety and raise engagement. 

There are also the added benefits of helping students to see that maths is a creative subject – as integral to the arts as it is to science, technology and engineering (Stem) – and introducing them to new careers.

For teachers keen to try the approach out for themselves, the resources used by Doyle are free to use and are available via the Careers and Enterprise website. As well as lessons for GCSE students, there are also lessons for key stage 3, covering topics like ratio and proportion (through the work of production designers, art directors and prop makers) and finance (looking at how commercial managers work with revenue and occupancy rates).

When it comes to using the resources, though, Doyle has some advice.

“Everything is there for you in the resources, but you need to look through them in advance, and make sure they fit in with the curriculum at that time,” she says. “That’s when it’s really powerful because students have the basic mathematical knowledge of what you’re doing, and then the lesson is just the next logical step.”

You don’t have to use the lessons to the fullest either: Doyle stresses that they’ve been designed to give teachers flexibility. “You can take little parts of it and change it to suit you. Some schools, obviously, have different lengths of lessons, and the lessons can cater for that.”

So, how about it? Do you think you have any budding set designers, production designers or commercial managers in your maths class? Perhaps some will be like Jess, who, having had her eyes opened to a whole host of new careers, is now struggling to choose. 

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