What's wrong with maths?

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
What puts the fear of numbers into children? asks Helen Barnes

Government proposals to revise the maths framework to emphasise traditional methods have stirred up controversy among TES readers (see last week's issue). Although I have never known any child to start school with a fear of numbers, many seem to quickly acquire one.

Despite arriving with an instinct for arranging objects in ways which make sense to them, despite taking pleasure in making groups and piles of items and despite joining in with counting rhymes and games with gusto, I know that too many of them will dislike maths and find it difficult, before they leave primary school.

So if they don't arrive at school worried about maths, the conclusion we have to draw is that schooling itself does the damage. Is this because we are asking young minds to abstract their thinking far too early?

Just as some children have what seems to be a "natural" ability to read and pass unscathed through all the changes in fashion, similarly some seem blessed with an affinity for numbers. They notice patterns, they are naturally curious, they want to try to imagine the biggest number in the world. They too will breeze through the system, despite changes in fashion.

It is foolish to suggest that solely by teaching children a set of reading rules, we will produce adults with a love of literature and an appreciation for the richness of language. Similarly, teaching children a set of rules for reaching the correct answer will not produce numerate adults who enjoy the richness of mathematics within society.

Why do so many children cite maths as their most difficult subject? Because in the game of school, it is the area where they experience failure earliest. Imagine teaching reading and writing in the way we teach numbers.

Young readers are encouraged "to have a go", to think what a word may say by using a range of grammatical, phonological and contextual clues.

Children are praised constantly and given encouragement to keep trying.

There seems to be a wider range of support material for those who find it difficult. In number work, a sum is either right or wrong (in their eyes).

Being extolled to "try again" doesn't quite feel the same.

As teachers, we need to create an atmosphere where the "have a go" attitude extends into number lessons. Once confidence is lost, it is very difficult to restore.

I worry about my maths teaching and wonder if I'm getting it right. The pressure to push children on and the timetable for where they should be, often has little correlation to what I know to be true. One mantra in my Year 1 classroom is that the "equals" sign is important in maths because it means "is the same as". And, to constantly question "Does that make sense?". But here I am admitting that my children are writing down sums.

Not all the time and not all at once, but nevertheless, at six years old they are being asked to put their thinking into recognisable symbols, which as an adult I can correct. And I'm not sure that should be so.

We all know there is huge potential to incorporate number games, practical maths and exploratory activities. But all schools are not on a level playing field and the best maths teaching may only be afforded to infants in schools where plenty of adults are there to support them.

Although I try hard to make number lessons fun and non-threatening, I still spot the look of fear in too many faces. I am convinced that the "desirable outcomes" for maths for different year groups need a major shift. If all children, on leaving primary school, were sound in their understanding of what currently is desirable by the end of key stage 1, I believe we could produce a greater proportion of adults who really understand maths. But now, some targets are being moved down a year, so that seven-year-olds will be expected to do what eight-year-olds achieved in the past.

Children do not run conveniently to a timetable and government goals need to be considered more carefully. I try to explain to parents that it's like using 10 bricks to build a foundation or 10 bricks to build a tower. The tower may look more impressive but will topple easily; the foundation can't be seen, but the wall won't stay up without it.

What teachers and children need is time. Time to let concepts "bed in".

Time to go off at a tangent. Time to find out you're wrong and understand why. True mathematical understanding won't leave children. They won't "forget everything over the holidays". And they won't come back next term still believing they're "no good" at maths.

Helen Barnes is a part-time teacher at Thurlby CP school, Lincolnshire

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