“Maths isn’t her thing.”
This is what I grew up being told, so this is what I believed. I achieved a C grade at maths in my GCSE’s – partly which I attribute to having sat one exam with mild concussion (but that’s another story) and partly which I attribute to the mindset around maths that had been cultivated for me.
When I began my teacher training in 2014 I had to sit the compulsory professional skills tests before my place was confirmed on my Primary Education (with QTS) degree course. One of which, of course, was maths. I applied to university through clearing and so had two weeks to get my knowledge up to scratch before taking the test. My confidence was low but I was SO determined to get on that course that I spent two weeks solidly revising concepts which I previously had never really grasped. I didn’t receive the best maths education at secondary school but I was also so close-minded about it (because I believed that I couldn’t do it) that I also never really tried. My fiancé, however, studied maths at A-level and has a real passion for the subject so he was able to give some great in-depth tutoring which started me off on the path to redefining how I felt about maths.
I passed the skills test first time. I left the test centre in a state of shock but also with a feeling that was totally new to my being – perhaps I could ‘do’ maths. This small voice in the back of my head telling me that maybe, after all this time, I was capable at maths is what sparked my enthusiasm for maths lectures at university; that, and of course, that I did not want any of my pupils to feel the way that I did about maths.
My lectures at university were fantastic and the level of maths teaching was outstanding. I was introduced to a whole new way of thinking about the subject. For the first time I realised that the answer is not important, it is the process that matters. I started being more flexible in my approach to problem solving and found that there is no right way – anything goes. Playing with numbers became fun. My university advocated a games-based approach to the teaching of primary mathematics and this was exciting for me. No longer was maths about pages of calculations with either ticks or crosses to determine how well you’d done. Rather, it was about learning the mathematical structures that underpinned the different concepts and using them to try out different approaches. Emphasis was put on encouraging pupils to explain their reasoning; this is one area in particular that I felt had been lacking from my own maths education – talking mathematically was something new to me but I instinctively knew that this was improving my confidence greatly.
Fast forward to the end of June 2018 and I am nearing the end of my NQT year. For the last 10 months I have been teaching in a year 4 classroom and have loved experimenting and putting some of my beliefs and ideas into place. I am learning that flexibility with number is key, but nowhere near as much as flexibility with planning. There are some concepts that my pupils have understood quickly, whereas some that have needed more support. Sometimes I’ve found it ok to sew the seed of a new concept, park it and come back to it. Whereas sometimes I’ve felt the need to stay with a concept longer than I had planned. I’ve focused my efforts where I’ve felt will best make a difference. Sometimes I have to step back and think: what is going to best support them as they move forward in their learning journey?
I try to use mathematical games to both consolidate learning at the end of a unit of work and also, to introduce new ideas. This is where I come across children using mathematical language and where I really see fluency and problem-solving come into their own. I will ask a question such as: “what mental calculation strategies were you using in that game?” Most of the time, they are able to tell me with ease because when playing games they are using them with ease. The pressure is off and this provides space for children to step back and witness the strategies they’ve learnt in action. Nrich’s Nice or Nasty dice game is a great place to start: https://nrich.maths.org/6605.
If we ensure that the way we teach maths is fluid and open then we will find that our pupils experience maths in a fluid and open-minded way which will give them a much greater sense of ownership around their learning. Pupils might say, for example, “Miss R showed us that we could do that one this way or that way, so the way we work this one out doesn’t matter either”. Maths becomes less rigid. There’s less room for right and wrong and therefore, there is much less reason for children to feel as though they are either good or bad at maths. The ultimate goal is for children to face a new calculation and be confident enough to invent their own way of working it out, rather than identifying an existing strategy to use. This is how we create young minds capable of creating new ideas and concepts; able to approach maths with a confident curiosity and a belief that it is for everyone, not just the ones who receive the most ticks.