Problem solving

17th March 1995 at 00:00
Long-term improvement means long-term funding, says Marjorie Gorman, who calls for a national training initiative to raise attainment at key stage 2. Primary mathematics was the main item on the agenda at the recent general council meeting of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics following questions raised by the Office for Standards in Education report Science and Mathematics in Schools.

The report highlighted particular disquiet about work on number at key stage 2. Inspectors observed that although most pupils could perform basic skills adequately, they could not apply their skills to solving problems because of a lack of understanding. They found that pupils spent too much time on repetitive exercises and too little on consolidation before being moved on to more difficult work. Pupils were not encouraged to develop their own mental strategies for solving problems - strategies which are essential for the development of mathematical thinking.

To make progress towards raising attainment, there needs to be a change of emphasis in the teaching. Teachers need to use the abilities that children have and build on them. Children need to be given meaningful experiences which allow them to use whatever knowledge and skills they have so they can gain confidence in their own ability to solve problems.

Encouraging teachers to work in this way has been one of the main aims of ATM since its beginnings in the 1950s. Unfortunately there has developed a view that classrooms have to be either interesting places where pupils are encouraged to explore ideas, or places for meaningful learning which is usually boring. This is nonsense. There needs to be a balance between providing pupils with challenging material and encouraging practice to achieve fluency. Good teaching involves both direct instruction and repetitive practice.

The OFSTED report attributed a lot of the repetitive maths work in primary schools to an over-reliance on published maths schemes, due to teachers' lack of confidence in their own mathematics. However, effective teachers need to plan and deliver well-structured lessons. They also need the appropriate mathematical knowledge as well as personal qualities to understand and encourage their pupils. Maths expertise alone is no guarantee of good teaching.

Primary teachers are expected to teach all subjects of the national curriculum equally well. Some will have an inclination towards maths, but it seems from recent research that many more have quite negative views of the subject and teach it reluctantly. The maths enthusiasts who join ATM find they can share their enthusiasms. Because of the relatively small proportion of members from primary schools such members need to be prepared to take an active role to gain most from their membership. This could be by leading sessions at the local branch or writing articles for maths journals describing interesting work in their classrooms, or even serving on general council.

It is to the good of a school if an enthusiastic teacher can be the subject co-ordinator and act as consultant to colleagues. The 1994 OFSTED report Primary Matters recognised the important role these curriculum co-ordinators have to play and suggested they should be called subject "managers" with a responsibility to manage and monitor their particular subject throughout the school. Members of general council felt strongly that it would perpetuate the myth that maths is an elitist subject if most of the maths teaching in a school were to be undertaken by the maths co-ordinator. Emphasis should be put on encouraging all teachers to teach maths well.

Cluster membership is a new scheme for 1995 which attempts to make membership of ATM for primary schools more affordable within the constraints of small school budgets. It also provides a means of encouraging links between secondary and primary phases of education. We have held day conferences for primary teachers in conjunction with other subject associations and these in-service training days have been very successful. But there are limits to the time and energy available to those working through a voluntary association.

What ATM can do is to highlight initiatives which have been successful in recent years but which have been curtailed for lack of funding. There would appear to be consensus among those involved in maths education on the usefulness of the 20-day courses supported by central Government funding. Membership of ATM would be one way of maintaining the learning and enthusiasm of teachers who have been on such courses. There has also been widespread regret that the curriculum development teachers, who had a noticeable effect on maths development in schools, have all but disappeared.

Can we have a long-term national initiative for raising maths attainment? This could be targeted at key stage 2, building on the success of earlier initiatives. For any long-term improvement, we need adequate long-term funding. As the OFSTED report states: "A concentrated effort to improve the maths education of seven, eight and nine-year-olds may not be apparent for a decade." Now we have the national curriculum to provide a framework, and the new Order with the key stage programmes of study to assist in planning purposeful learning, is it not appropriate to find adequate funding to support targeted in-service training?

Marjorie Gorman is an advisory teacher in Wakefield and secretary of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, based at 7 Shaftesbury Street, Derby DE3 8YB. Tel: 0332 346599.

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