SYSTEMATIC teaching of mental maths, especially in the first three years of primary school, is the key to unlocking the "mystery of numbers" and improving the position of Scotland in international league tables of maths performance, a conference in Renfrew heard last week.
Primary and secondary teachers from eight west of Scotland authorities were told by Peter Patilla of the National Numeracy Project south of the border that mental maths is "the fibre in the diet and should be taken a little at a time and regularly".
Pupils in the UK perform less well than counterparts in Europe and the Pacific Rim because they do not spend as much time on structured ways of doing mental calculations, Mr Patilla said.
If schools introduced mental maths "schemes" children would end up more confident, competent and comfortable.
Mr Patilla favours a session lasting from four to 10 minutes at the beginning of every lesson. "One hour of teaching does not necessarily produce twice as much learning as half an hour. A short burst of mental maths at the start can whet the appetite."
He urged teachers to allow "thinking time" for children and encourage whole-class participation, and demonstrated ideas like "unison response", "show me", "cover-ups" and "the answer is - what is the question?" Mr Patilla said: "The biggest disservice is to restrict young children to low numbers up to 10 or 20. They are well capable of using simple skills with large numbers and it can make a huge difference to their self-confidence."
Teachers welcomed Mr Patilla's approach. Robert O'Donnell, of St Flannan's primary, Kirkintilloch, who has been teaching for 24 years, said: "There were some quite innovative ideas, particularly the use of interactive games and the emphasis on creating thinking time for children".