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Making maths add up

November 19, 2021, 15:59 GMT+1
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  • Joy Deep Nath shares how to break down barriers to mathematics once and for all...
Making maths add up

There’s no reason why maths can’t be playful and instil a sense of curiosity in learners – not only to drive attainment and engagement in the subject, but also to address knowledge gaps and skills deficits.

It’s undoubtedly true that maths has amassed a notorious reputation for being unpopular in the classroom with students, many of whom tell themselves they’re simply not ‘maths people’.

Despite their best efforts to make the subject more palatable, maths teachers were even voted the ‘most evil’ by over 2,000 children back in 2004.

Unfortunately, it’s also been one of the most adversely affected subjects of Covid-19-related school closures. A recent study found that the attainment gap between disadvantaged primary pupils and their peers had widened by one month in maths since the onset of the pandemic; and data from Eedi indicates a significant drop in confidence for pupils working across all levels.

With the chairwoman of John Lewis recently reporting (paywall) that the department store is finding it necessary to provide basic functional literacy and numeracy classes to new members of staff, and further research indicating that many school leavers lack essential financial skills, it’s clear the subject’s unpopularity is translating into a hugely negative impact for the adult workforce.

As children begin to form their spending and saving habits as early as seven years old, it’s key that we flip the narrative around maths to help learners overcome barriers and form a healthier relationship with numbers long term.

So, how can teachers start to tackle the misconceptions that exist to boost engagement and develop pupils’ confidence in mastering maths?

Make it fun and individualised

Maths has sadly acquired a stereotype of being slightly cold, stiff and logical. Although children can often find its concepts more mentally demanding and time consuming than other subjects, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be playful and instil a sense of curiosity in learners.

Too many students start to develop negative attitudes towards maths during their foundational years of learning in the primary classroom, as they struggle with the all-too-common process of rote memorisation.

If teachers are truly to engage students in maths and boost attainment, they need to make lessons as enriching as possible from the get-go and ensure that any classroom activities are adapted accordingly for each learner’s unique context.

Deploying game-based learning is a reliable way to ensure that each task is rewarding for students, transforming assignments from chores into something to actively relish and look forward to. 

Swathes of research points to the effectiveness of game-based learning at targeting the intrinsic motivation of students, relying on their internal drive for competition, interaction and creativity, and ultimately boosting learning outcomes.

Many learning platforms have self-paced challenge formats that over time gradually adapt to learners’ needs and provide teachers with regular feedback.

Tackle anxiety

Studies conducted by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) suggest that students who suffer from math anxiety and/or phobia have scores that are up to 34 points lower than their counterparts. In real terms, this anxiety translates to one full year of school.

The implications of poor maths skills are sadly not confined to childhood, though, with a report by Pro Bono Economics finding that adults who lack confidence and capability with numbers are estimated to be less well off than those with good numeracy skills.

Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD, argues that “good numeracy is the best protection against unemployment, low wages and poor health”. So, how can teachers help more fearful students overcome their maths-related anxieties? 

Most importantly, students must become comfortable with failure and accept that they are on a journey which won’t always involve them having the right answer. By tapping into their imagination and creativity, learners will be able to build a more positive attitude towards maths.

Less formal methods, such as learning through play or game-based exercises, are great steps to take in reducing pressure on students and allowing them to express themselves more freely.

Get parents onside

With recent figures estimating that only 10–20% of children’s waking hours are spent in school, it’s vital that we maximise the time they spend out of school to guarantee momentum and progress in learning.

But with a survey by National Numeracy finding that nearly three in five parents found maths the hardest subject to help their children with during school closures due to the pandemic, many adults struggle to know where to start with homework.

Education technology tools such as SplashLearn’s ‘parent dashboard’ can help keep parents and guardians in the loop, providing instant notifications on progress improvement and skill completions. Real-time updates are also logged, allowing parents to stay on track with their child’s learning path and see which topics might need extra practice.

While maths can certainly prove more divisive than other subjects in the primary curriculum, its skills provide a key foundation for children to help progress through Key Stage 2 and GCSEs, and on to the adult world of bank accounts, mortgages and taxes.

If we are to effectively boost national numeracy confidence and set children up with the tools they need to succeed, maths provision must be as engaging as possible.

What you can do

  • How do each of your pupils learn best? Many children, particularly boys, are kinaesthetic learners. Having physical objects in your lessons will help with comprehension – this doesn’t have to be an abacus; you could use Lego blocks or even soft toys.
  • Numeracy should equip young people with the skills they’ll need to navigate adult life. Provide them with real-life opportunities to put what they’ve learnt in the classroom into practice – this can be as simple as a quick trip to a supermarket and calculating the correct change or helping the lollipop lady count how many children she’s helped this morning!
  • Get creative: too many children associate maths with words like ‘boring’ or ‘dull’, so breathe new life into the subject by working through story sums. Children can make up their own plots and characters, then weave maths throughout by pointing out where it might come in handy.

Joy Deep Nath, primary maths and EdTech specialist and co-founder of SplashLearn.