How to teach and learn maths

How to teach maths? requires the associated question to be answered: how do we best learn maths?

abacus is the best method: numbers are real, tactile and can be ‘worked’

Mainly we are asking these questions in relation to children as they are the ones most likely to be taught and learning maths. The new way in Britain and Ireland is to teach in a more practical way with a relevance to daily life. This means less learning by rote, less learning how to do maths but more understanding the why of maths. The emphasis now is on the “landscape” of numbers and the connections between numbers.

Some help for the modern approach comes from neuroscience. Neuroscientists tell us we have a “starter kit” for learning maths, without which it would be difficult to learn maths. this starter kit is in the left parietal lobe and is linked to abstract tools like the language and visual areas of the brain. The starter kit helps us to recognize smaller and larger groups of objects. This has been shown in studies, where for example an infant is shown 3 cars. The experimenter places them out of sight, say behind a chair, and then returns 2 of the cars to the child. The child then goes looking for the missing car. This shows children have an innate sense of number.

Numeracy is important to get right, not just for the individual but also for the economy. KPMG, the accountancy firm has gone to the trouble of doing the sums(!) and found that low numeracy cost is higher than low literacy cost to the state.

The new approach to teaching numeracy involves new methods and vocabulary; chunking, number sentences and the permitting of all strategies. Chunking is the taking away of chunks, before learning long multiplication, grid multiplication is taught first which benefits from being visual. The new way is slower allowing a deeper understanding.

Australia eliminated long division 20 years ago yet the Australian economy has grown each year since!

PISA and TIMMS (Trends  in International Mathematics and Science Study) can reveal western European and U.S.A schools lag behind Asian schools yet Singapore, one of the exemplary countries educationally, is in the process of changing its curriculum – and taking advice from British educational experts!

For parents wanting to understand more about the changes, I recommend the books by Rob Eastaway and Prof Mike Askew, namely Maths for Mums and Dads (Primary) and More Maths for Mums and Dads (secondary).

On teaching maths see Prof Jo Boaler’s The Elephant in the Classroom: Helping Children Learn and Love Maths.

The late great professor Richard Feynman (who solved the mystery as to why the Shuttle crashed) describes his experience trying to teach his cousin algebra. He explains why his cousin couldn’t solve an algebra problem but “I learnt because I never went to school! Watch the video The Pleasure of Finding Things Out  (the relevant section begins after 9 minutes)

For a 30minute Radio 4 discussion on the above topic click here

BBC provides many useful resources for maths education available here:

The magic number – a series of radio programmes looking at the quirky side of numbers: click here

Numbers – many maths topics explained in one minute videos: click here

Maths – Practical, common-sense maths for adults in 1 minute videos: click here

Maths learning resources and online courses: here

A Radio 4 talk on teaching maths by Prof Jo Boaler. Available until Sept 2015: click here

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