Parents in the picture

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
"There is only one member of the maths staff at my child's school I can talk to. The rest are so unapproachable." This statement, from a teacher, one of my fellow research students, highlights the worrying lack of communication skills possessed by maths staff. If even he has difficulties talking about maths to his child's teacher, how do those outside the teaching profession feel?

During a career break from teaching some years ago, while my children were younger, I dabbled in the fashion business. From this vantage point, I was able to observe (almost clandestinely) how those outside teaching viewed what went on in maths lessons.

One commonly expressed view was that it was "all different now". One father even said his son's school was teaching maths wrongly.

This startling claim followed the father's discovery that his son had been taught to subtract using a different method (decomposition) to the one he had been taught (equal addition). Having never seen another method, he concluded the school was incorrect, and told his son so. Fortunately, I was able to point out his misconception, and explain how both methods worked. He was won over, and horrified at his mistake.

Subtraction is often the first area identified as "new". One parent even thought the decomposition method came in with the national curriculum. Being aware that many parents are unfamiliar with this method is perhaps the first step for schools. This area can be a serious problem, but it offers a huge opportunity. A note home, pointing this out, and an offer of explanation for those who are unfamiliar with the method, may be helpful.

This would mean parents could help their children without putting home and school in unwitting conflict. Parents can usefully reinforce schoolwork. Importantly, it has opened the door, early on, for a dialogue about maths. One of the reasons why we maths teachers seem so unapproachable is our failure to talk to other people, to tell them what we are doing and why we choose the methods we do. It is time to start.

When I have pointed out misconceptions, people have often become open to new ideas and would even discuss maths. But it is these very areas and attitudes teachers often find irritating.

We must learn to use these irritations as a springboard for dialogue, rather than despair at people's ignorance or lack of knowledge.

Rosemary Russell is author of Maths for Parents, co-author of Information Technology for Parents (Piccadilly Press #163;5.99), and is researching Parents Helping Their Children With Maths at Exeter University

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