Why you need to make maths visual for your students

8th November 2014 at 06:00

Experienced teachers will be familiar with the feeling of disappointment when, two weeks after they have taught a mathematical concept, they are met with blank gazes, furrowed brows and question marks when they return to it.

According to Rebecca Misselbrook, deputy headteacher at a West Sussex primary school, the reason for this amnesia is the way the maths was taught in the first place.

“We are not giving children enough models and images on which to hang their newly learned concepts,” she writes in the 7 November issue of TES. “How often do we use practical resources with all Key Stage 2 primary children, not just those with special educational needs?”

She believes that abandoning numicon, multilink and other visual resources as soon as the students reach the upper reaches of primary school is limiting the potential of students.

“When I questioned a group of nine- to 11-year-olds about learning recently, I found a clear difference between those who had a deep understanding of the number system and those whose understanding was based on simple recall of facts,” she writes. “The main difference in these children’s learning journeys was that some had been exposed to a range of models and images throughout their school lives, whereas others had relied on their ability to recall and follow procedures from worksheets without truly understanding why something worked.

“Children in the latter category had consequently become manipulators of digits, unable to apply the concepts and procedures they had picked up to new problems. These children had learned to be calculators rather than mathematicians.”

Misselbrook goes on to describe numerous ways of incorporating visual resources in the classroom and tying them together using Derek Haylock and Anne Cockburn’s connective model of learning maths. This model outlines how mathematical understanding depends on four different elements: symbols, language, images and concrete examples.

“Try dividing your display board into the four sections and pin up some examples from each segment, including some of the practical resources you have used and pictures of the group using them. These act as a visual reminder of what the children have learned, meaning that the board becomes a prompt to enable further independent work.”

While she realises that using practical resources takes longer, she firmly believes the payback is worth it.

“On a busy Monday morning or an exhausted Friday, it is overwhelmingly easy to pull out that worksheet you have used before, or photocopy the tried-and-tested activity that always does the job. But weigh up your options – deep and meaningful learning takes time. Shallow learning wastes time as you will only be going over it again six weeks down the line. So get creative. Dust off your counters, dig out your arrow cards and remind yourself just how fun and practical maths can be.”

Read the full article in the 7 November edition of TES on your tablet or phone or by downloading the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. Or pick it up at all good newsagents

 

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