Judged and found wanting

The most important realisation for teachers in teaching maths is to admit when they do not know something, and then having admitted it to do something about it.

This week I am devoting space to responses I have had to earlier columns. This first letter serves to remind us that it isn't always the maths that's the problem.

Disgusting revelation

At least you are honest, but I was rather disgusted by your admission that when you started teaching you could not remember beyond your six times table (TES Teacher, April 19). If I were in charge of a secondary school I would not allow people at the school who did not know all their tables and I am talking about pupils, not teachers. I and all my childhood friends learned our tables as four-year-olds. Schools, colleges and universities nowadays have a lackadaisical attitude in accepting pupils who do not possess the key skills. It is all about money, but it is unfair on teachers, lecturers and other students in their class. Last year when I was lecturing second-year Business and Finance students at a local university, a couple of them could not do basic percentages - like 60 per cent of pound;100,000. On another occasion, when I was teaching prospective accountancy students, at least four of the class could not understand basic ratios. Why should a lesson or lecture be held up for these people? Why should these people even be accepted on to courses?

You mentioned your embarrassment. What about in job situations? I went to pay in some cash at the branch of a well known bank and the teller could not add two figures together without using a calculator. I was held up for 15 minutes arguing with her that 36 plus 15 really did equal 51. I have been embarrassed as accountants and solicitors have to use a calculator to add two figures together. What happens if machines go wrong? Spreadsheet totals can often be "one out" in additions due to rounding. In 1963, Fords had to write off a difference in its accounts of pound;1 million, which it could not find and this was before mechanisation.

This is also about customer service, giving a good impression to the customer - or in your case the pupils.

Laurence Hoppen, Woodford Green

I was saddened at your disgust and belief that those who are not able to remember facts should not be allowed to enter school, universities or colleges. The most important realisation for teachers in teaching maths is to admit when they do not know something, and then having admitted it to do something about it. The danger is that pupils' learning can be adversely affected by the failure to confront that lack of knowledge. This is what we hope to address through the Mathagony Aunt column by offering confidential support. There are many who feel afraid of being judged as you have done. We have many talented teachers in our schools and I am sure they are more than willing to help colleagues.

Lack of fluency of multiplication tables can be a hindrance as having to revert to some kind of generation process uses processing space in the working memory. Because someone is not fluent in their tables doesn't mean they have uncommitted parents.

And there was a time when it wasn't fashionable to teach fluency of multiplication tables, it wasn't thought necessary. I empathise with you. Teaching students at a higher level when the basic arithmetic is not understood does hinder the rapid progress of other students. I am surprised that your university does not have some kind of screening in place so that these areas can be identified at the beginning of a course and a programme set up. Perhaps this is an initiative you could introduce. Many universities and colleges now have support centres where remedial help can be sought, which provide good models for other institutions. Much of this work is reported at the conferences of the Adult Learning Maths, International Research Forum (www.alm-online.org).

In job situations both for the employer and the employee there is a recognised problem. It is estimated that lack of numeracy and literacy skills is costing industry pound;4.8billion a year in lost profits. We can all be of help here. Embarrassment, anxiety, fear, stress can all use up working memory making us less efficient at processing. Perhaps what happened to the bank teller was that she was finding it difficult to process the information properly if you were "arguing" with her. A better approach might have been to suggest a pattern that would make the mental calculation of the two numbers easier, for instance 36 + 15, could have been 30 + 10 plus 6 + 5 = 40 + 11 = 51. For some people, using simple strategies is not obvious. Just think, a friendly understanding and "quick teach-in" could have been a great benefit to that teller. She might even have gone home and told her children!

* The Chinese way

Teaching maths at key stages 3 and 4, I can confirm that Chinese grid method of multiplication is a really popular method among pupils (TES Teacher, May 3). I completely endorse the value of estimating answers before calculation but in the case of multiplying decimals, the grid itself can be used to position the decimal point. Draw a vertical line down and a horizontal line across from the decimal points of the numbers being multiplied. A diagonal line is then drawn from where they meet to position the decimal point in the answer as shown in the diagram below.

Jill Borcherds, Nobel School, Stevenage, Hertfordshire

Wendy Fortescue-Hubbard is a teacher and game inventor. She has been awarded a three-year fellowship by the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) to spread maths to the masses. Email your questions to Mathagony Aunt at teacher@tes.co.ukOr write to TES Teacher, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1W 1BX

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