Supporting children to develop key mathematical skills & attitudes in the Early Years.
I have recently been lucky enough to deliver a session at the Alliance for Learning Teaching School Early Years conference. The day was a real celebration of Early Years with ideas, research & strategies being shared, debated & discussed.
This is an overview of my session which Alliance for Learning have kindly agreed for me to share with the Nexus Education community.
The aims of the session included:
The session started with sharing quotes from children regarding their views on maths.
“I don’t like maths as I have to sit on the carpet for too long”
“I think it’s hard as all the numbers get jumbled up in my head.”
“Maths is too much answer time & not enough learning time”
“I think I would rather play with the cars or the dinosaurs”
Quite telling…children are very good at telling it like it is. Already these children are developing opinions and habits of mind about maths. These habits of mind are already negative and potentially could be a barrier to them moving forward in their learning; especially if this is an ingrained long lasting memory.
Quotes were then shared from grown ups about their feelings about maths.
“I have always been rubbish at maths”
“What’s the point of pi or knowing about isosceles triangles?”
“I just couldn’t make any sense of it. It didn’t seem relevant to me or when I grew up.”
“I think I decided that at an early age maths wasn’t for me. I have managed OK without an O level in it so far.”
Unpicking these quotes shows a sense of almost acceptance that maths isn’t for them and they had resigned themselves to this situation.
One of these quotes is actually from me- the 3rd-one-it is a true reflection of how maths lessons left me feeling. I needed to see the relevance in maths for me to buy into it, for me to be able to know how everything I was being taught fitted together. It all felt very separate; in distinctly individual compartments, with a clear focus on recall & barking out answers.
My question here at the conference was if this was the feeling shared at home & comments like this were part of the language of maths, what were the children bringing in with them into your setting or school?
Influential in this area of maths identity is from Jo Boaler. In her book ‘The Elephant in the Classroom- Helping Children Learn to love maths’, Boaler has found that a poor maths identity can develop as early as 2 years of age with observations showing children moving away from activities where there is a right or wrong answer AND instead preferring to take part in much more creative, open ended activities which allow a sense of exploration, trail and error and creativity.
From 2! We all know how difficult it is that it is much harder to undo a learnt response.
Influential in Boaler’s work is the research of Carol Dweck; particularly about Dweck’s views on fixed and growth mindsets. The reason for including Dweck’s research within this session was to explore how a positive attitude to maths acts as a driver towards feeling that you CAN and whether this ultimately means that you WILL achieve.
Think of children you support- what are the ones like who are successful at maths. What are the ones who find maths a struggle like?
Do those who succeed at maths know how to apply their key maths skills in a range of experiences? Do they keep going, adapt and modify approaches when their first attempts didn’t satisfy? Do they understand the power of mathematical language in helping them shape their emerging understanding of maths content?
How does their positive attitude make a difference to their maths learning?
Do the children who find maths more difficult have a more narrow window of trial and error; relying on a limited number of strategies? Do they seek out a greater level of adult support to provide different strategies and ways of problem solving? Do they also have a sense of ‘I can’t do it’ when faced with a new problem?
Perhaps if we focus on these drives and attitudes rather than just providing them with more of the same (i.e. content), would this be a way in for children to improve their maths learning?
Consider what this means for us at our level-are you more inclined to be totally engaged in something if you have a glimmer of a slight chance of succeeding and the feelings which happen as a result of that achievement, rather than taking part in something where you haven’t felt those feelings before?
Jo Baler summed up this view perfectly “Teachers need to offer mathematics as a learning subject not a performance subject.”
Jo Boaler ‘The Elephant in the Classroom’ (2017)
Just this slight shift in how maths is viewed and therefore communicate to the children may be the extra push for some children to see the enjoyment of being involved in maths learning.
Different suggestions of how we can create a positive maths identity for your youngest children were then shared.
Question, challenge and ponder everyday.
Next, we considered what the role of the adult in supporting the mathematical journey of all
children could look like……
The following points were presented as a mini audit; a framework to support reflective and professional discussions.
Identify the barrier and consider a range of strategies which include the delivery of maths content through a characteristics framework.
Next in the session, time was given to exploring critical thinking and it’s importance for securing the drive to learn maths.
Critical and creative thinking need to be embedded in every mathematics lesson. Why? When we embed critical and creative thinking, we transform learning from disjointed, memorisation of facts, to sense-making mathematics. Learning becomes more meaningful and purposeful for students.
……teaching through problem-solving rather than for problem-solving.”
Dr Catherine Attard 2017
Initial discussions on this characteristic highlighted critical thinking as a life skills and its place in maths? Critical thinking is an integral part of the EYFS and is part of the characteristics of effective teaching and learning.
Choosing ways to do things: this talks about supporting children to be able to use their developing and secure mathematical knowledge alongside their capacity to manipulative this knowledge in a range of mathematical problems with secure understanding. For example can they use their knowledge of number binds to 10 to help them understand part part whole representations? Essential here is the development of their drive….their oomph to enquire and find out. How do we do this? Explicitly sharing a range of problems and how they can be tackled may a way to show children what this skill involves. Alongside modelling and thinking aloud gives children the permission to know that this is a useful strategy to organise their thoughts and also enables them to make sense of the language, maths content and desire to keep finding out.
Making links: this element of critical thinking involves supporting children to be able to transfer knowledge into a range of other mathematical activities- adaptation leading to stronger more diverse patterns of connections. For example, can they use their understanding of the relationship between numbers when they are starting to find out about subtraction and addition? If we as adults don’t share these links with them then they may not be able to make them for themselves and therefore risking a view which looks at maths as a disjointed set of facts or information. Deep secure learning is much more difficult to foster without connectivity.
Having their own ideas: here, we are asking children to solve problems based on prior knowledge. They understand what problem solving is as a tool for learning & are able to choose from their developed range of strategies & ideas to begin to tackle a new problem. This willingness to have a go is based on a level of prediction, connection & confidence. Here collaboration of adult and child ideas and thoughts are instrumental in helping the children build up a bank of strategies. Revisit these strategies frequently to offer reminders and also to modify, add and strengthen. Spend time on this discussion of possibilities, talk through the process of finding out and exploring. The more we do it, the more children will do it.
Revisit the characteristics framework and use this alongside the curriculum subject content when planning. The development of a holistic view of maths, with consideration given to all elements scaffolds all children’s learning potential and ensures that they experience a layered framework which supports, challenges and celebrates.
Final thought of the session:
“What will you do tomorrow to engage, excite & motivate your children?”
Thank you to everyone at Alliance for Learning for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts. It was exciting to see so many dedicated Early Years practitioners and listen to their own inspiring ideas.