‘Tackling a really big problem’: Eddie Woo is man on a mathematics mission

When Australia’s celebrity maths teacher Eddie Woo began his education degree, he planned to specialise in English and history. But upon learning about an acute shortage of maths teachers, he decided that’s where he was needed most.

Around 20 years later, there is still an acute shortage. One in five of those teaching junior high school maths in a public school is not qualified in the subject. There are many reasons, including waning levels of teacher confidence in the subject and high demand for maths specialists across every industry.

Eddie Woo with teacher, Kuldip Khehra at Quakers Hill High School with students, Liam Sammons, Anirav Punj, and Chelsea Ayscough.Credit:Janie Barrett

“Most of my friends who had the skills – gifted in mathematics, great at working with people – these skills are attractive in a lot of places,” said Mr Woo. “Employers are desperate for people with mathematical thinking.”

Mr Woo’s decision to eschew English for maths was a lucky one for the NSW Department of Education. After rocketing to stardom with his hit Wootube maths videos, he is now in charge of its Maths Growth Team of highly skilled maths teachers, who mentor others in how to teach the subject well.

There are 13 teachers on the team, which will grow to 22 by 2025. Since March last year, they have supported more than 300 teachers across 59 public schools.

“We’re embedded in schools, we work every day alongside the teachers we support to design professional learning to help them be the best teachers they can be,” Mr Woo said.

One member of the team is Kuldip Khehra, who is the head maths teacher at Quakers Hill High school but travels to other schools. “We teach students still, [but] the other aspect is we teach teachers as well,” she said. “In some cases, you’re a coach or a mentor.

Maths teacher Eddie Woo says the world is fuill of data and mathematics helps people understand it. Credit:Nick Moir

“You’re a sounding board. Where people will [say], ’I’m about to teach this topic, what can I embed in it to engage students but also create that really good mathematical understanding? Sometimes we team teach, they do one part and I’ll do another.”

Mr Woo wants to encourage teachers and students to view maths as a way of seeing the world. He cites COVID-19 data as an example of how mathematics has become part of everyday life.

“One of the frequent questions we get asked is, ‘do we really need to keep learning all this stuff when you have a calculator?’” he said. “We need that mathematical thinking more than ever, we’re surrounded by a sea of numbers and data.

“The mathematics we teach may be similar to what it was 100 years ago, but how it’s applied in the real world changes all the time.”

Mr Woo knows a small group of expert teachers is not going to make students and teachers feel confident and enamoured of mathematics overnight. But research has shown that mentoring of teachers has significant benefits.

“We’re tackling a really big problem, and it’s existed for decades,” he said. “There’s all this great research out there, but people don’t know what it looks like in the classroom.

“We’re also deepening the evidence base that’s there; evaluation is a key part of the work we do. We want to know what’s most effective, why it is most effective, can we amplify that good practice across NSW and across the country?

“We don’t think we’re going to solve the world’s problems tomorrow. We do know that mentoring and coaching roles can help teachers improve, and we know the quality of teachers in the classroom is the single highest factor outside home environment.”

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