Problems with maths need working out

21st June 2013 at 01:00

Education Scotland wants children to be asking "why?" more in maths, to be working in groups and problem solving, as opposed to beavering away alone, applying memorised techniques. But how far is that shift going to be possible if the teachers themselves have not been given these opportunities?

In our cover story (pages 10-12), Professor Sally Brown expresses her dismay that the General Teaching Council for Scotland wants entrants to teacher training to have a Higher in a language but not a Higher in maths or a science.

If Scotland is to ensure effective preparation in primary schools that engenders enthusiasm and learning, teachers will need a proper background of relevant knowledge that can underpin their teaching, she argued recently in a letter to TESS. She also called for continuing professional development for qualified teachers so that they too could be "confident in what they are doing".

However, research by the University of Dundee found that trainee teachers got worse, not better, at primary-level maths if they had a Higher in the subject. Dr Sheila Henderson, who carried out the research, believed that this was because they had left behind topics such as time and money, replacing them with knowledge of quadratic equations.

What's more, according to the Scottish Survey of Numeracy published last year, primary teachers are already confident in teaching maths. The survey also found that the vast majority of primary children were performing within the correct level - unlike 32 per cent of S2 students.

Yet blame for the poor performance of S2 students cannot be laid at the door of secondary staff alone, the experts say. Primary teachers must also take responsibility, they argue, as learning in maths is a cumulative process and if the building blocks of children's learning are not on secure foundations, things may tumble down later.

Education Scotland reminded delegates at a recent national numeracy conference that it had published professional learning materials to support teachers in the areas where the numeracy survey said children were struggling - including measurement, fractions and percentages.

But it would be naive to think that Scotland's uneasy relationship with numbers could be solved by online resources.

Last year, the government launched five literacy hubs in five local authorities and funded the handpicked councils to spread their good practice. Alasdair Allan, minister for science, was asked recently if there were any plans for something similar for numeracy. There were not, he said. This is disappointing.

If that kind of investment were forthcoming, perhaps those who say that numeracy plays second fiddle to literacy in Scotland would be forced to think again.

emma.seith@tess.co.uk.

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