We don’t understand maths in school?

In the olden days (ie when lots of us were children), the emphasis in maths was on learning facts and methods that would give the correct answer, such as ‘carrying’ and ‘borrowing’ hundreds, tens and units (HTUs). And, if you haven’t suppressed the painful memories, this usually involved working through pages of sums laboriously. Maths work in class was usually done on an individual basis so children couldn’t copy each other’s work.

Very often, children did not understand why these methods worked, only that if they followed the rules they would get the right answer and a tick from the teacher. There was also a big emphasis on learning times tables by chanting them out loud and having regular tests.  Gradually, there was a move towards the idea that maths could be made more interesting and relevant through teaching it differently.

The introduction of the National Curriculum and then the numeracy strategies put the emphasis on the need for children to ‘know, understand and do’, to be able to talk about their maths through the use of language, symbols and vocabulary, and to be able to explain their methods and offer reasons for their choices.

There was a recognition, too, that learning tables was very helpful in making complicated multiplication and division sums easier to complete quickly. So nowadays, the maths techniques and methods children are taught in schools are based on giving them an understanding of mathematics and helping them to articulate that through explaining, discussing their work with each other and involving them in solving problems that apply to everyday life.

Children learn different methods for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. There is, for example, ‘chunking’ for division, the ‘grid’ method for multiplication and ‘partitioning’ for adding HTUs. A number line is used in a variety of different contexts from age four upwards.

For parents, who didn’t experience these techniques while they were at school, there’s a learning curve to understand how children are being taught maths. Like most parents – numerate or otherwise – the first reaction to this was annoyance. Why have they changed it?  Now my child gets cross when I try to explain using my methods. Is this why some people reckon the country’s maths is going to the dogs?  What becomes clear is that at school you may have been one of the lucky ones. Being strong with numbers, you had no problem learning the black-box techniques of long multiplication and long division, and usually got the right answer.  But for a huge proportion of children, these techniques were a meaningless chore.

The importance of strong number skills has never gone away. We are inundated by numbers all the time, whether it’s somebody flogging us a mobile phone package or a politician trying to convince us about a particular policy. As a society we have to make sense of these numbers if we are to successfully manage our lives.

Do we all need to be able to work out 27 x 43 precisely with a pen and paper? Probably not. But we do need to know that 27 x 43 is roughly 30 x 40, and that this is roughly 1,200. It’s partly the need to have a good feel for numbers that is behind the modern methods. The emphasis has moved away from blindly following rules (remember borrowing one from the next column and paying back?) towards techniques a child understood.

So to help you here are some guides to mathematics in today’s primary schools:

The first document is in word and the guides for each year group in PDF format, click to read.

There are a whole range of websites now available to help you. Mr Knapp and Ms Wallace Wright have been holding parent sessions on maths mastery and shortly some new helpful guides will be on this page.