Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Lessons in maths

A new report suggests that children should learn maths through using it rather than focusing on abstract concepts.

Judith Burns, the BBC Education reporter, writes:  “Professor Dave Pratt of the Institute of Education argues innovative teaching techniques and technology could help more pupils engage with the subject.”
This is particularly relevant to me this week, after my son raised his confusion over division.  After a quick demo involving half a dozen eggs from the fridge and three bowls and confirmation that “to divide” means “to split,” my son seemed happy enough to resume play as his alter ego, Batman.

Shortly afterwards, we attended his primary school parents’ evening, to be told that whilst English is his strong subject (no surprises there given the stories he tells me on a daily basis!) he lacked confidence in maths. 

Given that the teacher nonetheless was unconcerned with his progress in maths, I continued to nod earnestly (as is my usual form at such events), before suddenly recalling our at-home division discussion.  Instead of continuing my Churchill nodding dog mimicry, I decided to ask if there was anything we could do to help.  The teacher proceeded to give us an example of how she is currently teaching the Year 2 children to add double figures, by adding the tens and units separately, something my son was apparently struggling to grasp.  They call it “number squashing” and a typical example of such a calculation would be as follows: -

32 + 24

30 + 20  = 50

2 + 4 = 6

50 + 6 = 56

Just a simple tweak in presentation from the way in which I was taught – back in the day – and I was left wondering whether all future mathematical challenges would be as straight forward.

Truth be told, maths was not my strong point at school.  I wasn’t a poor student, but I did have to work at it and much of the GCSE maths I learned in school has been all but erased from my memory in the intervening years.  (I blame the mercury in the floorboards at my Victorian era school).  So, it’s no surprise to me to learn from Judith Burns’ report that Government figures show that almost half of the working adults in England have only primary school maths.

So how are we to help our children with their maths homework when the problems become “trickier?” 

On discussing this with another mum, her only comment was “Wait ‘til they get to Year 6!”

In the absence of a direct hotline to Carol Vorderman, I am clearly going to have to up my game if I am going to assist in broadening my son’s mathematical knowledge.  The same mum who issued this stark warning for the future advised that her focus has always been “time and money.”   By this, she did not mean private tuition, but literally ensuring that her children could tell the time and handle money. 

I suppose it’s a start, although all the clocks in our house have roman numerals, which is confusing for any 7 year-old.  However, clearly more is needed, preferably an all-encompassing bible of mathematical teaching methods.  So if you see a woman staring blankly at the shelves in the education section of Waterstones, take pity and point me in the right direction!

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