Fear of multiplying

13th January 1995 at 00:00
Angela Dewsbury discovers some strategies for overcoming the widespread hostility among both pupils and teachers to maths - a subject that is so important to our lives. If people across the country were polled on which subject they hated most at school the chances are maths would storm ahead to the top of the list. The cry "I've never been good at maths - I could never understand it at school" is so familiar it has become part of our culture. Yet it is this attitude which is often the biggest part of the problem - and the onus is on teachers in schools today to reverse this trend.

Many are concerned about the poor marks that Office for Standards in Education inspectors recently awarded to the quality of maths teaching in our schools. In its report Science and Mathematics in Schools: A review inspectors pinpoint teachers' lack of confidence in the subject as one of the main causes of this fall in standards.

"At key stage 2, mathematics is judged to be the weakest subject in the curriculum," concludes OFSTED after pooling together findings from various inspections. But the problem doesn't stop in primary schools.

Secondary schools are also failing to make lessons interesting enough, to provide for different ability levels and to challenge pupils sufficiently, continue the inspectors.

Many in the field say the modern maths approach is to blame because it focuses too much on the discovery approach and fails to ensure that pupils have grasped basic concepts. Others will respond that it is the traditional method of learning by rote and completing endless sheets of meaningless exercises that caused the rot to set in.

There is no doubt that the maths teaching you received at school will affect the level of confidence you have when approaching the subject from the other side of the desk, as this story from one teacher testifies.

"I was the child who was constantly hauled to the front of the class to get extra help. I got it into my head that maths was only accessible to the really clever. Then at secondary school I was lucky enough to get a teacher who made maths interesting and easy to understand. I went on to take it at A-level and then beyond, to specialise in the subject for my degree. Not what I expected after such a bad beginning!" However, laying the blame at one door or the other is not the solution. In reality few teachers adopt one style wholesale anyway, be it the traditional or modern approach.

What is important is that you leave any negative attitudes you may have towards maths behind you.

"It is vital that you help pupils be positive about maths since it will be so important to them in later life," says Collette Brown, an NQT still in her first term. She adds that her school, Sydenham Middle in Leamington Spa, is so supportive that any apprehensions she may have had were quickly dispelled.

Kirsty Allen in her third year of primary teacher training believes the key is to get pupils enjoying the subject.

"Many children have preconceived ideas that maths is difficult full-stop, " she says. "It is up to us to use activities that help them realise that this is not the case and to give them the confidence to have a go."

Ceri Morgan, her maths tutor at Warwick University, stresses this point. "Avoid communicating any attitude of maths other than one of enthusiasm. " He emphasises the importance of getting pupils to question what they are doing. "Teachers need to let go of the idea that they must have all the answers, " he says. "Try to ask more and tell less and get the children doing the thinking. "

But what if you are concerned that your own grounding in maths is shaky? First, don't underestimate your ability, says Marjorie Gorman, honorary secretary of the Association of Mathematics Teachers.

"The knowledge will be there even though it may be buried underneath." The lack of questioning that has gone on in the past means that many teachers, when they were at school, could get away with applying mathematical concepts without understanding what they meant. "It is when you come to teach it yourself that you feel you need to understand it - and it is then that the lack of confidence sets in."

If you feel unqualified don't despair. "A high level of qualifications is not so important," reassures Marjorie Gorman. If you can build up your confidence by pushing out what are often unfounded worries about your ability and show enjoyment of the subject then in some ways your approach will be far more beneficial to your pupils because you will have respect for problems the learner faces.

The demands of the national curriculum mean that teachers who lack confidence can no longer duck the issue. "Before the national curriculum if you didn't like teaching a certain aspect of maths you could just leave it out," says Joy Candelent, maths adviser for Warwickshire. Having to teach mathematical concepts you may have never met before could be a cause for panic.

But don't despair is Joy Candelent's response. "First, find out what structure is in place in your school." Most schools have a scheme of work for maths which clearly sets out what should be taught and when - and if not, try and push them to set one up as a priority.

Richard Webb in his third year of teaching at Potters Green Primary in Coventry says that their scheme of work was put together by all the staff. "It is so well planned that I didn't have to worry about the maths side of things, " he says. Collette Brown found the same in her school. "From my experience I can't agree with OFSTED's claims," she says. "With our scheme there is no chance of standing still. We are constantly tackling things in different ways and each activity provides for three or four different levels. It is definitely not repetitive."

If she does feel in deep water teaching a particular aspect she will go straight to the maths co-ordinator for help. "We should make use of the experience of other teachers in school - the chances are they will have gone through the same problem at some stage so will know exactly how to help, " says Collette. Most schools will allow time for the co-ordinator to work alongside you in the classroom to show you how to put their ideas into practice - make use of the help they can offer.

OFSTED inspectors came down heavily on schools which rely solely on a published maths scheme. "It is human nature to rely on these schemes especially if you think your own knowledge is suspect," says John Stringer, an education consultant who specialises in maths. "But don't let it become a straitjacket. "

Richard Webb believes it is a case of applying common sense. "Some of the activities in the scheme are quite bizarre at times so you just ignore those and with the help of the co-ordinator use other activities more appropriate to the age group and needs of your pupils."

There is a danger that pupils using only these schemes will be unable to see the relevance of maths to the real-world, says Joy Candelent. Maths to them will mean filling in worksheets. "Records become simply details of which pages have been completed rather than assessing exactly what concept the child has understood," she added. Marjorie Gorman summed up the advice of many: "These schemes have their place as part of a mixed approach - but don't let them take over."

Assessment is another key worry particularly for the non-specialist. John Stringer stresses that it is not just a case of seeing whether the pupil can apply the rule. "You need to question them to find out if they have understood the process behind it." He gives an example: "Ask a bright five-year-old the total journey time of a train travelling two hours to the top of a mountain and two hours back down again. Most intelligent adults would be quick to give the wrong answer of 'four hours'. The child shows greater understanding of the problem by replying that it depends how long the train waits at the top while the passengers board."

Although this questioning of the pupils is time-consuming it is crucial to find out whether or not the child has really understood the maths involved. "You have got to check that they know what they have done and why, particularly for open-ended tasks," says Collette Brown. The notion that the x out of 10 figure at the bottom of the page of sums, tells you exactly where the child is at is ludicrous, says Ceri Morgan. "Children are far more complex than that."

Many initial training courses are too jam-packed with other things to be able to devote sufficient time to maths. But don't let that put you off. There are plenty of training courses you can go on to top up your skills once in your new job. Warwickshire, for example, runs courses on everything from teaching probability and early ideas of algebra to developing problem- solving skills. "Push for extra training from outside," says their maths adviser Joy Candelent. "Although the decision will ultimately be in the hands of your headteacher, it is important to ask."

Refresher courses on basic maths appear to be in short supply - "the number of these courses across the country you can probably count on one hand," says John Stringer. However, courses are supplied on demand - so if that is what you need, stand up and say so. "You should never be in a position where you feel you are battling wildly on your own," says Richard Webb. It is important to explore all the avenues for help and support that are open to you.

New teachers have a vital role to play in helping to ensure that the school-leavers of tomorrow step out not only confident in maths but having discovered its value to them in their everyday lives.

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