Why children often struggle with maths in school: part 2

24th May 2016 at 15:55

Reason 2: “Too formal too soon.”

Subject Genius, Phil Rowlands, Why children struggle with maths: part 2

"The new developmental research shows that this historical consensus about children was just plain wrong. Children are not blank tablets or unbridled appetites or even intuitive seers. Babies and young children think, observe and reason. They consider evidence, draw conclusions, do experiments, solve problems, and search for the truth."  

From "The Scientist in the Crib"


In many countries including the USA and UK the majority of schools follow a prescribed curriculum that is subject to regular testing. Results are made public and the pressure this generates for schools has led to an increase in the practice of ‘teaching to the test’. Coaching test related skills has generally become more important than creating an environment where children can ‘solve problems’ and ‘search for the truth themselves’. This inevitably leads to a lack of deeper understanding.

For example, numbers pose a real problem for young children. The reason being that number is an abstract concept. What does this mean? Take any number you like, say for example ‘five’. If I were to ask you to go and fetch me ‘five’ you would naturally respond, “Five what?” Numbers only exist in relation to something concrete . . . five gold rings, six French hens, or whatever.

Children are often unable to perform simple additions to ten because they cannot perceive ‘five’ as an entity in itself only as a series of individual objects. As one exasperated adult pointed out, their teachers were unable to help because . . .‘they didn’t understand why we don’t understand.’

Subject Genius, Phil Rowlands, Why children struggle with maths: part 2

One of the things that always irritated me was to observe children counting on their fingers when asked to perform a simple addition. It revealed so much about their lack of understanding of number. Like Jung these children have never really understood what numbers are. The root cause is almost always to be found in the first few years of schooling when children are exposed to formal math activities before they have grasped the underlying concepts.

There are many superbly gifted practitioners in our schools but from the weight of my 37 years' experience I would say many teachers of elementary and primary school children are not entirely comfortable with math themselves.

In 2008 Wales announced the introduction of the Foundation Phase, a flagship programme that was to focus on developing learning actively rather than simply transferring facts and involved using play-based approaches to develop children’s thinking.

It (the Foundation Phase) encourages children to be creative, imaginative and to have fun and makes learning more enjoyable and more effective.

Children will be given more opportunities to explore the world around them and understand how things work by taking part in practical activities that are relevant to their developmental stage. They are challenged with open-ended questions and given opportunities to explore and share their ideas for solving problems.” 

Wales Pre-School Providers Association.

It was radical and exciting but doomed to fail.

Subject Genius, Phil Rowlands, Why children struggle with maths: part 2

The problem was no general consensus existed among schools as to what the Foundation Phase actually looked like. Everyone interpreted it differently while some regarded it with suspicion as being too nebulous and ill defined. It was an opportunity lost and a different philosophy has taken root. Children now sit SAT tests at six in a system diametrically opposed to that envisaged for the Foundation Phase.

As a head teacher I embraced the Foundation Phase. No more boring and repetitive worksheets!

With evangelical fervour I set about attempting to transform the pedagogical climate with regard to maths. All I achieved was to create an atmosphere of apprehension and panic in the staffroom. “What are we supposed to do if you take away our maths worksheets?” was a common response. Matters came to a head when my Deputy Head, an early years practitioner, openly challenged me, “If you want us to teach maths in a more child friendly way then provide us with a programme to do it.”

She was right. I was in danger of creating a black hole in the maths teaching firmament. People need clarity, direction and a structure to work within if they are to achieve their goals. So I set out to write a program that would reflect the way young children learn best and would provide a clear framework for teachers and parents to follow. It took several years of intensive research and hard work to perfect but at last I could say to my staff, “Here is the model I want you to follow.”

I remain passionately committed to a play-based curriculum but, paradoxically, if such a model is to succeed then detailed preparation is essential to success. The first thing to consider is what material is best suited to support creative practical activities? Next what kind of open ended questions, tasks and challenges should we ask and set to enable children to discover specific concepts such as number bonds to ten. How do we assess children’s development and progress? Children are natural learners it is we who have to become more sensitive and attuned to their needs. Improved pedagogy taking account of the latest research into brain-based learning is key. Unfortunately the current trend is moving towards a more prescribed curriculum that is squeezing innovation and creativity and causing frustration and resentment. Not an ideal educational climate.


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Phil Rowlands is a semi-retired head teacher and author of educational programmes and fiction.