Primary teachers get ‘too much stick’ over maths

Many teachers have 'a broken relationship' with maths because of the way it is taught, argues academic

Emma Seith

Primary teachers get 'too much stick' about maths teaching, argues Jo Boaler

A maths education professor keen to transform the way the subject is taught in schools has dismissed the idea that primary teachers need to hold more advanced maths qualifications in order to improve pupil performance.

In the past it has been suggested that to help raise standards in maths, primary teachers in Scotland should be required to have a Higher in the subject, placing it on an equal footing with English.

However, ahead of delivering a keynote address to the Scottish Learning Festival in Glasgow tomorrow, Jo Boaler – professor of mathematics education at Stanford University in the US – has said she believes primary teachers are too often berated for their lack of subject knowledge, given that international evidence shows pupils’ performance in maths dipping in early secondary.

The issue was not about upping the qualifications of primary staff, rather it was about changing the way maths was taught in school, said Professor Boaler.

Maths should not be about rules, and right or wrong answers, and “mindless memorisation”, she said, but about creativity and ideas.

'Visual' maths

Speaking to Tes Scotland, Professor Boaler said: “Primary teachers get a lot of stick and criticism for their lack of knowledge that is pretty unfounded because if you look at the results of kids, they dip in middle and secondary school internationally, yet it’s primary teachers who they say do not have enough maths.

“What I have learned is many, many teachers – and it’s the same in primary and secondary – have a broken relationship with maths where they think it’s a subject of memorisation.”

She added: “Primary teachers do not need different qualifications. It does not help to have a higher level of content knowledge if you don’t have good ideas about content teaching.”

The aim behind her approach, Professor Boaler said, was to “open up maths” and make every problem a visual one. So instead of asking pupils to calculate the area of a rectangle that is 8x3, teachers should ask them how many rectangles you can find with an area of 24?

Setting questions like this led to “more active connections between different parts of the brain”, which ultimately allowed pupils to “think more flexibly” and improve their performance, she said.

Professor Boaler added: “I’m not talking about not focusing on numeracy. I’m saying, 'Let's focus differently and be more multi-dimensional.”

A key aim of Professor Boaler’s approach is to “eradicate the idea that you are born with a maths brain, or not”. But she warned against trying to change pupils’ mindsets about their ability to do maths without changing the way the subject is taught.

“It is not enough to give mindset messages,” she said. “We should not say ‘work hard and you can do it’, because you have to also change the way the content is presented.”

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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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