Thursday 10 November 2011

A maths problem: Winning hearts and minds.......

My 3 year old has just started preschool. An amazing, award winning, inspirational preschool, led by Lizzie, one of those ‘special few’. I was delighted to meet her. A like minded teaching soul, we shared some ideological stuff about the Government’s absurd insistence on assessing 3 year olds, along with the undeniable benefits of outdoor learning. Then Lizzie asked me my subject - and that is when I saw her literally shudder.
Why does the word provoke such a reaction? And what, if anything, can we do about it?

Can we tackle raising standards in maths and deal with the devilish problem of altering deeply embedded attitudes?
We can, if we focus less on test results for a moment and imagine children knowing maths in quite a different way. Envisage maths in the class room being creative, fun and engaging; envisage children in the class room being busy, curious and interested.
Buckets and buckets of money have been thrown at the thorny issue of raising mathematical standards. Government drives, national strategies and endless initiatives have all been thrust on teachers with limited success. But now the pots of cash are drying up and austerity measures have hit hard. 
We need to forget about big, top down, expensive strategy policy makers and learn to manage the problem at a micro level - in schools and within schools. The answers lie with the teachers themselves.
But the truth is, through no fault of their own, a lot of teachers have a very negative view of maths often stemming from their own experience at school. These teachers are not in a position to teach the subject with confidence, enthusiasm and creativity. And in many cases their own maths is simply not up to scratch. (By that I mean a primary teacher’s own mathematical ability should easily outclass that of a bright 11 year old; the expected high standards may surprise a few teachers as well as parents.
With time, energy and focus, we need to invest in our existing teachers and change the way many children are taught maths. The Government acknowledges this and in the Schools White Paper “The Importance of Teaching” (2010) announced the Government’s commitment to improving the maths skills of existing teachers. But it goes on to say that the primary responsibility for this rests with the schools.
With an enlightened outlook, schools can do this - we can invest in ourselves.
Firstly and fundamentally, we need to be honest; we need to ‘own’ the problem and be prepared to do something about it. Then we can take responsibility for raising our ‘game’.

Getting the basics right is the best start. Teachers need to be aware of the expected maths skills for the pupils within their school (for primary teachers this would be up to at least Year 6 level maths). Currently, and maybe somewhat surprisingly, this is not always the case. And then teachers need to regularly challenge and hone their own maths skills and be prepared to ‘own up’ when skills are lacking. (Good senior management will be essential to render an atmosphere for creative candor.) Working together on maths problems is a simple start. A five minute maths focus at the start of every staff meeting is a good idea. (Be prepared to discuss answers and compare them with how your pupils are expected to show results.)
I know, I know! 
.....I can already hear the dissenting voices in the staff room. Why maths? ‘Other subjects are just as valuable.’ So true - but no other subject suffers from the huge shuddering cultural handicap meted out to maths.

Why we need to tackle maths NOW..........
  • because more than one in five children leave primary school having failed to grasp basic maths*;
  • because failing to master the fundamental skills at primary school leaves you with only a one in ten chance of catching up by age 16;
  • because league tables now demand that maths be included in the 5 A*-C statistic;
  • because there are plans to abolish the modular (try as many times as you like) maths GCSE;
  • because the Government is planning to make studying GCSE maths compulsory for any 16 to 18 year-olds in education without a grade C or above in the subject;
  • because if you do not secure a basic level of numeracy you can feel the negative effects on your lifestyle, your income and your health;
  • because we need a shift in culture if we are ever to tackle the huge tail of underachievement in the UK;
  • because although there has been some improvement in the UK over the last 20 years, standards have been rising much faster in other countries;
  • and just because ..... because we owe it to our kids.

Tackling questions a bright 11 year old is expected to do could create much needed discussion and debate. The Channel 4 Dispatches website have some very good examples stemming from an excellent programme shown last year ‘Kids don’t count’. 
I recently used a typical question from the teacher quiz on their website, 1.4 ÷ 0.1, whilst delivering INSET.  It caused problems.
Actually it isn’t a difficult problem at all and was really only my starting point for    1.4 ÷ 0.01. I just think sometimes all the notation can get in the way and we can easily panic or freeze. A very common reaction in stressful (exam!) situations. For 1.4 ÷ 0.1, I suggested this: Imagine you are in the car watching the SAT NAV showing you getting closer and closer to your destination. As you get close it starts counting down in 0.1’s of a mile. You are 1.4 miles away from meeting all your friends and family. How many times do you count down before you get there?(1.4, 1.3, 1.2,..................) Answer: 14.
(Often rephrasing the question is enough: How many 0.1’s go into 1.4?)
(For 1.4 ÷ 0.01, the answer is 140)
Another typical question which can wreak havoc: 2 1/2 ÷ 1/4
Many of us need to retrain ourselves to picture or visualise the problem. Stop looking at the numbers and symbols and instead picture a scenario. Try imagining two and a half green apples. How many children could each have 1/4 of an apple? 
Answer: 10 children could each have 1/4 of an apple.
(Each whole apple could be cut up to give 4 quarters, so the two whole apples would be a snack for 8 children. And the 1/2 apple could be cut into 2 quarters.)
So do we always have to relate maths problems to everyday life? No absolutely not - but sometimes when there is a ‘block’ or a habitual resistance to learning maths - it can certainly help.
I believe that pure or abstract maths should be taught - and from an early age. Maths is a robust, economical and efficient language. When taught well the intrinsic beauty of maths is wholly satisfying.
The ‘new’ methods of the Numeracy National Strategy are, on the whole, great and a massive improvement on the mysterious algorithms many of us were taught at school. However there are two big problems. One - parents don’t always follow the new methods and therefore can feel deskilled and anxious. Secondly - I think some primary teachers have misunderstood the intent. The intention is not to bombard the pupils with a plethora of methods and then leave it up to them to ‘choose’ which to use. No. The intention is to gradually introduce written methods based on the previously practiced mental methods, refining and abbreviating the methods until the most efficient method is mastered. Some children will obviously go faster and further along this path than others.
Giving parents clear guidance on the methods currently used in the class room simply makes sense. Parents are very keen to help and are often a massively underused resource. We also need parents ‘on side’ if we are serious about rewriting the script for the instinctive response to the word ‘maths’. Some schools provide better information than others. Often, at the end of the day, there is little time and energy to devote to parents constant queries. With this in mind, and after being asked by countless parents if there was a book to help them, I decided to write the book ‘How To Do Maths So Your Children Can Too’. 

Together - parents, teachers and anyone involved in educating our children - we can make a difference.
A sea-change to how many of us view ‘maths’ really is possible and there could be a whiff of it in the autumnal air. Now is a great time to inject optimism into the staffroom. All that is needed is someone to channel some positive energy: An Advanced Skills Teacher (AST) would be great (and free).
We’re done with battling with strategies; now we’re battling for hearts and minds. 
Teachers are an incredibly bright resourceful bunch of people. Once we put our collective minds to something we can be invincible. The knack now is to persuade a critical mass of the teaching profession to want to become more proficient at maths.  And it is a very doable proposition. All we have to do is create the space and afford the focus to getting the basics right. Simple maths resources will suffice, for example: step-by-step guides(see ‘How To Do Maths So Your Children Can Too’); worthy websites (try;;;;;; It’s not rocket science - we can do this. And if we do, teachers will feel more confident, more comfortable and more empowered in the classroom every single day. The cultural cycle of negativity towards ‘maths’ may even stop spinning!

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