Maths poser for new staff

19th December 2003 at 00:00
Primary teachers find maths tricky, but their secondary peers are sceptical of pupil achievement. David Henderson reports

Two years into their careers, young primary teachers still consider maths more difficult, less enjoyable and less exciting than other key curriculum areas.

But they are more confident about teaching it than they were when they left university. They also remain far more optimistic about pupil achievement than students training to become secondary specialists, who are largely sceptical about pupils' ability to grasp what maths is about.

A small-scale survey by Professor Donald Macnab, of Aberdeen University's school of education, examined the views of primary students in 2000 before they left for full-time posts and then again this year at the end of their second year of teaching.

Maths remains their most difficult subject compared with environmental education, expressive arts and language but concerns about teaching it have halved since they started in class. Two years ago, 58 per cent thought maths difficult against 30 per cent now. This is still well above the perceived difficulty of other subject areas.

The teachers consider that learning mental methods of calculation is by far the most important aspect, followed some way behind by the learning methods of problem-solving, learning mathematical facts, and learning to apply known mathematics in unfamiliar contexts.

The general view of probationer teachers was that maths was useful, to some extent interesting and to some extent routine, but not exciting.

Professor Macnab says: "In particular, while teachers did not think that the innate mathematical ability of pupils was a reason why the standard of mathematical attainment of Scottish primary school pupils was not higher than it currently is, they had no clear view of what would improve standards.

"This uncertainty of the teachers may be connected with their positive view of pupils as learners. If pupils are not being sufficiently stretched mathematically, then difficulties of understanding become less apparent."

He points out that recent surveys have revealed "considerable deficiencies in meeting the relatively modest Scottish national standards of attainment".

More than half of the probationer teachers also felt that the maths they learned on their university course did not help develop their own understanding, their confidence or their understanding of pupils' learning difficulties in maths.

The professor poses three questions: 1. Should these teachers not be worried about attainment standards?

2. Is it inevitable that they should have downbeat views of aspects of their mathematical education as teachers?

3. Why do they perceive mathematics to be less enjoyable and more problematic to teach than other areas of the curriculum?

Teachers did not think that learning maths was hard work for their pupils "because on the terms on which it was taught and learned, that was indeed the case".

Professor Macnab believes teachers' difficulties may lie in their lack of feel for and insight into mathematical thinking and processes, which they did not think were adequately dealt with in their degree course. This unease transmits the idea to their pupils that mathematics is not intrinsically interesting.

He concludes: "An essential first step is to provide mathematical experiences for student teachers which lead them to gain understanding, insight, and thereby liking and interest for mathematics in itself and not merely as a useful adjunct to everyday life."

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