Back To Tradition For Maths

A Return To Rote?

In a statement earlier this year, former schools minister Nick Gibb argued that young students are falling behind in maths due to a strong resistance to the use of traditional teaching methods. He claimed that repeated practice was necessary to commit methods to a child’s long term memory, much like the process of learning to play a musical instrument. Difficulties with comprehension of basic mathematical concepts therefore come down to the decline in the use of mental arithmetic and rote learning in early years, two techniques that Mr Gibb says are viewed as controversial amongst many in the field of education. But are the traditional methods really better?

An article by Yuichi Handa (2012) explained the confusion in some circles of mathematics education between the ideas of repetition and rote learning. Handa argued for the virtue of traditional teaching methods in supporting a deeper understanding of the item being studied. Despite being seen as simple, a necessary evil, or at worse ‘mind-numbing’, by some educators, Handa argues that repetition and practice need not be a dull and unimaginative process. He also states that repetition does not necessarily equate with rote leaning methods. He argues that any repetitive undertaking can be worthwhile through its value in teaching the benefit of hard work. Repetition involves discipline and persistence, and Handa concludes that it is the process of repetition itself that helps to underscore a student’s deeper understanding of a topic.

This requirement of effort is essentially positive ‘affectivity’; recognising that the skill of problem solving requires an individual’s force of will, regardless of academic ability. A student may have the intelligence to understand a problem, but their willingness to experience frustration and complete the emotional work of problem solving is arguably just as important to their overall success. Stamina is an essential characteristic of the process, but one that is seldom discussed and far too infrequently practised. Many schools currently reject the slow and careful preparation approach in favour of ‘chunking’, where students are encouraged to break a question down into smaller components and answer each of these independently. However, it could be argued that the idea of mathematics as a subject is wrong, and it should instead be viewed as a whole language that requires the equivalent of spelling tests in order for a student to memorise it’s vocabulary and grammar. Handa concludes that the practice of repetition is an ideal way to not only learn a specific idea or pattern, but also contributes to an individual’s ability to problem solve in other areas, and should therefore be encouraged in the classroom in order for the child to develop the ability to communicate effectively in mathematical language.

A New Curriculum

In September, a new maths curriculum was introduced that aimed to give greater emphasis to the learning of times tables and mental arithmetic from an early age. By the age of nine, students will be expected to have mastered multiplication tables up to 12. Several recent governmental reports have highlighted the difficulty many parents have faced when trying to help their children with maths homework. Parents admit the main issue is the change in teaching methods since their own days at school. A return to more traditional methods may improve the situation.

Additionally, parents themselves now have extra support to improve their own mathematics skills. Vorderman’s Maths Factor offers videos and guides that explain the areas of homework that parents reported finding the most difficult, such as long division, conversion between decimals, fractions and percentages. Parents have a big influence over how successfully students develop maths skills, and how confident they become with the subject later on. Focusing on primary maths is therefore crucial for future success, and lack of adequate understanding at a young age can translate into a failure at GCSE level. However, if students develop skills early on, their confidence grows and they begin to view maths as enjoyable rather than stressful. The gap between the two only widens with age, and as mathematical ability is essential in everyday life, it is important that this divide is addressed as quickly as possible.


Photo: Andy Maguire

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