Published on 05 July 2021
Transforming the way maths is taught has become the mission of teacher John Cooper for the last 10 years.
As John graduates from the University of Sunderland today with his PhD - Breaking the Failure Cycle, which highlights the opportunities and challenges of adopting teaching methods that develop maths skills in further education, he reflects on his own journey to improve the current system and get students passionate about learning.
“I have always had a genuine desire to improve learning for young people, it’s the main ethos of everything I have done and forms the basis of my PhD,” explains John, who has been teaching resit maths at East Sussex College in Eastbourne for seven years.
"It's not all about teaching, a lot of people make this mistake, it’s about making learning better. The sum of what we learn is greater than the parts we teach.
“We train teachers to be reflective which is very inward looking – like looking in the mirror, this way we only get an opinion of ourselves. We need to look at this through the students’ eyes rather than being reflective. It’s a huge change in the way we teach and a big leap of faith to abandon being reflective and adopt this idea of being empathic to learners.”
John, from South London, began his own teaching career 10 years ago, after he sold up his successful IT company. He went on to complete a Master's degree at Brighton University. After realising secondary school teaching was not for him, he joined further education. There he realised the students landing in his class were failing and secondary school had already been unable to help them to succeed. Exam results of less than 11% achieving a Grade 4 pass rate or higher, indicated change was needed.
John secured Department for Education (DfE) funding and brought in a teacher-educator from a local university for advice. After spending a considerable amount of time observing lessons, they realised what they needed was to replace their perceived failure with success.
From there, John developed his Essential 8 Maths Mastery Programme; which allows post 16 GCSE Maths students to become masters of eight essential topics. (Transformations, Area and Perimeter, Probability, Angles, Simple percentage, Ratio, Algebra and Linear graphs). It’s a reduced curriculum split into manageable, achievable parts that could be learnt as a whole group, with everyone learning together – a shared positive experience.
“All our classes at Sussex Downs College are well attended because students now want to be there, we don’t pressure them, don’t embarrass them or make them feel uncomfortable, our attendance is fantastic.”
As a result, there has been a steady improvement in many areas of students’ experiences and grades. Essential 8 has since been turned into a book, which has sold over 30,000 copies and downloaded 30,000 times through the Times Educational Supplement. John was also given the opportunity to present his ideas at the prestigious European Association for Practitioner Research on Improving Learning (EAPRIL) conference in Finland in 2017.
Following the conference, John began his PhD at Sunderland to ensure credibility to all his research, which is now being adopted by a number of further education colleges across the UK.
He says: “I’m originally a TV engineer from South London and have ended up with a PhD, that would not have happened without universities like Sunderland behind me. I can't speak highly enough of the university and the lecturers who supported me, like Dr Lawrence Nixon and Professor Maggie Gregson.
“It's one of the few universities that has a Professor of Vocational Education in Maggie, that’s a huge strength for education in the North.”
John now plans to continue his links with Sunderland and has already written a paper with Dr Lawrence Nixon, but plans to stay firmly in the classroom teaching, where he believes he can make the biggest difference to learners’ lives.
“It’s the only place I believe I can have any credibility as an educator.”
Professor Maggoie Gregson said: "Since his successful viva, it has been a real pleasure to work with John as a colleague and a co-researcher on a number of national research projects. John's research in the field of GCSE mathematics is making a real difference to the lives and life chances of his students."
Read more about Sunderland’s graduation celebrations here: https://www.sunderland.ac.uk/class-of-2021/