Outrage at return to 'dark ages' of mechanical sums

26th May 2006 at 01:00
Maths experts horrified as government proposes that all 11-year-olds use traditional methods to do arithmetic. Warwick Mansell reports.

Government plans to return to a "back-to-basics" approach in primary maths teaching have angered senior academics, numeracy consultants and some teachers.

Critics say the move heralds a return to the "dark ages" of children adding up, subtracting, multiplying and dividing in neat vertical rows without understanding what they are doing.

Proposals from the primary national strategy say that pupils should use only traditional approaches to calculation by the time they reach the age of 11.

If implemented, teachers will be expected to change the way they teach from September. Some say the move will make maths teaching less confusing for pupils.

But the strength of the backlash against the plan may force a U-turn.

The row centres on a Government update of its primary maths framework, which sets out how the subject should be taught.

Since 1999, non-standard forms of written calculation have been winning favour in schools.

These methods are modelled on teaching techniques used successfully in the Netherlands and in some American schools, and seek to deconstruct the working behind traditional calculation models.

For example, historically children have multiplied by writing one two-digit figure over the other, then multiplying the top number by one digit of the bottom number, then the second digit, then adding these two numbers together.

The non-traditional method has children breaking the two numbers down into tens and units, then multiplying each part before adding them up. (See box, below).

However, proposals to update the framework reject such non-traditional approaches. They say that newer techniques can be taught - but should be seen only as "staging posts" to traditional methods, which all pupils should be using by the end of Year 6.

Opponents are furious at the proposals, arguing that the new techniques give pupils a better understanding of how they arrive at answers, rather than the old mechanical methods, where techniques were learnt by rote. They say children should choose the technique they understand best.

This week, in a joint statement, five leading members of the Mathematical Association said that the strategy's proposals marked a "return to the dark ages".

"Don't let us go back to the bad old days, with books full of pages of vertical sums, when only a minute percentage of pupils understood what they were doing and only a third (could) carry out calculations," the statement said.

Research from 1997 showed that only a third of Year 5 pupils could subtract 159 from 354, because they had to rely on the standard technique, which few understood.

The Association of Teachers of Mathematics said: "The methods suggested are outdated and have been superseded by more 'understandable methods' that help pupils to move forward with confidence."

Margaret Brown, professor of mathematics education at King's College, London, said the proposals "flew in the face of research". And Julie Anghileri, a senior lecturer at Cambridge university, said high-achievers, who liked using a variety of methods, and lower-ability pupils, who often disliked the old techniques, would lose out.

However, some teachers on the TES's online staffroom have welcomed the return to tradition, arguing that it is better for pupils to master one standard method than to struggle with several.

Tim Coulson, director of the national numeracy strategy, said that the intention was to promote more consistency in maths teaching. But he told the TES that he is now thinking about whether to continue with its proposal in the face of the reaction against it. He said: "We are going to address these concerns. We will certainly not ignore them."

* warwick.mansell@tes.co.uk

LEADER 22 Consultation on the proposed update of the framework ends on June 2. See website www.standards.dfes.gov.ukprimaryfeaturesframeworksconsultation

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