More to mathematics than just numbers

18th February 2011 at 00:00

The Royal Society recently welcomed Graham Donaldson's report on teacher education, highlighting several of the recommendations for particular attention.

One is "the importance of primary school teachers having a full understanding of language and of number, the necessary foundations of their being able to teach literacy and numeracy effectively".

It is a wonder why the word "number" is used instead of "mathematics". Fortunately, Donaldson does not appear to believe that a full understanding of number is a necessary foundation for numeracy, but that maths is.

But he too seems to think primary teachers with minimum levels of numeracy will solve the challenges faced in maths. It may seem pedantic to highlight terminology but this confusion may go to the heart of some of the issues surrounding the subject.

Maths is viewed by many as difficult and threatening, so it is unfortunate that the way to address this appears to be by calling it something else. This has been true in England where the entire maths curriculum was, until recently, called the national numeracy strategy. In Scotland, under Curriculum for Excellence, aspects of maths are now also called numeracy, suggesting that they are distinct areas of the subject: number and maths - easy and difficult?

Focusing efforts on number work may be misplaced. The last Timss report on maths and science highlighted that 56 per cent of the time in Scottish primary classes is spent on number, compared with an international average of 50 per cent, yet Scotland's overall performance in maths is significantly lower than the international average.

Reducing maths to number, or ability in maths to being numerate, only reinforces negative beliefs about the subject: the idea that being bad at maths is fine in a way that wouldn't happen with language.

A better way to reverse this would be to promote maths as a connected whole and ensure teachers are competent and confident in all areas of the subject. The Royal Society and Donaldson appear to believe this can be achieved by teachers understanding number and displaying competence in numeracy; reinforcing the split in the subject in such a way may be part of the problem.

Dr Sheila Henderson, senior lecturer (mathematics education), Dundee University.

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