Calculating maths advances

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
Tony Gardiner and former HM inspectors Mayhew, Trickey and Thomas (TES, October 24, November 7 and 28, December 12), miss the point about the mathematics teaching advice given to schools in the 1980s.

I agree with the HMIs that schools were advised to teach number facts, but I also think that Dr Gardiner is probably right that a lot of schools didn't, or at any rate a lot of children didn't learn them. A good deal of the advice given by HMI in the 1980s stemmed from the conclusions of the highly-regarded Cockcroft Report published in 1982. Cockcroft promoted the return of mental calculation to the classroom and the need for children to develop an "at homeness" with number.

This did not happen: the Assessment of Performance Unit mathematics surveys of 11 and 15-year-olds in 1982 and 1987 showed that performance in number generally declined in the five years following the publication of the report, particularly at age 11 (Primary Year 6), while performance in some other areas of maths (geometry and statisticsprobability) improved.

Overall, the Cockcroft recommendations amounted to a broadening of the maths curriculum, especially in areas such as investigations and practical problem-solving. This broadening may have been too much for teachers to assimilate without additional curriculum time, and number work may have received less attention by default. Teachers may have been seduced by the possibilities of attractive and colourful presentations of graphs and geometrical patterns and diagrams, while solid number work looked rather more dull.

Many advisory teachers were appointed within local authorities at this time to bring the Cockcroft message to schools. However, in the 1987 APU survey, 80 per cent of primaries reported that they had no support from them, and a quarter of the teachers indicated that they had not attended any mathematics in-service training course in the previous three years.

The interpretation and implementation of innovatory advice to schools needs to be monitored in detail - both in relation to what is being taught and how it is being taught, but also how performance in different areas of the curriculum is being affected. Teachers require sufficient support if they are to implement innovations in the curriculum effectively. Many educationists quote the results of the Calculator Aware Number project, which took place in some primaries in the 1980s, as a clear indication that calculators have a positive effect on pupil performance - but the teachers involved had direct support.

It is doubtful whether many schools would have teachers with the expertise to train themselves to integrate the calculator into the curriculum effectively. Indeed, the very slow progress calculators have made in primary schools testifies to this.


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