How to get children to be “number happy”

Bookmark and Share

Andrew Dunn, assistant director for schools, improvement and development with Darlington Borough Council discusses why mathematics is a key element of a children’s personal and academic development and explores how teachers can engage and encourage students to be passionate and enthusiastic about numeracy.

Maths is not always the favoured subject amongst school children, and teachers can find it a struggle to get children to be excited about long division and fractions.  It seems to be the subject most out of favour at school and this perception can be continued into adult life. Speaking to my friends the mere mention of ratios makes them physically shudder and say, “oh no, I hated maths at school, I couldn’t do it.” Maths has an almost negative social identity, yet it is one of the most important subjects that we need to succeed in education, future careers and everyday tasks.

As literacy and numeracy remains at the forefront of educationalists and indeed employers and parent minds, it is more crucial than ever for children to enter further education and adult life with the basic skills, also known as the 3Rs. A recent study carried out by the Confederation of British Industry found that low-levels of basic literacy and numeracy affected a fifth of firms in the UK. With children leaving school unable to perform everyday tasks such as work out price discounts in their heads or even calculate customers’ change, employers report that they are struggling to recruit well-qualified staff with skills in vital subjects such as science and mathematics.

A common misconception about numeracy in schools is that children are either good at maths or they are not. I do not believe this as I have seen children who are very weak at maths who within a year improve rapidly if they are taught well. It is about confidence and giving the children the right tools to make them feel they are consistently improving. The introduction of results-driven reforms, such as the numeracy and literacy strategies, mean that all too often teachers feel they have to rush pupils through the foundational basics of numeracy and literacy.

It is true children need to be taught in an interesting and fast-paced way, it is essential that they are able to complete a task and move on to the next level within a set amount of time but they also need the opportunity to consolidate what they have learnt along the way.  As children learn at different paces what happens when a child gets lost at one point of the module, how are they able to catch up?

Having taught at various primary schools in the North of England I have found that a few simple methods can help all children at different levels progress in numeracy so that when a child enters secondary school they are already at level 4 in maths and can therefore demonstrate an understanding of basic mathematical concepts.  ICT products and software can greatly help with the teaching of numeracy, creating an interactive and fun environment for children; I however prefer to teach the basics of numeracy with a more “traditional” method, in the form of differentiated workbooks and direct teaching.

The journey to becoming number happy

Workbooks have been around for a long time in the teaching world, yet immersed in an ICT-dominated society it is often easy to overlook more traditional methods. However, during the four years I spent as headteacher at Marton Manor Primary School in Middlesbrough, I consistently used a daily mental arithmetic session which revolved mainly around workbooks and the results certainly spoke for themselves.  In four years the SATs scores rose from 59 to 97 percent at level 4 and above with around half of the pupils reaching level 5.

When I started my second head teacher’s post at a primary school in Redcar on the North East coast I spent a long time auditing the schools performance and looking at the SAT results and teaching techniques that the staff had adopted over the years. It was evident that the maths standards were not good enough, in particular at Key Stage 2. Speaking to the pupils about their thoughts and feelings on maths, many disliked the subject. I asked why this was and many replied “I don’t understand it and I’m not sure how to do it.” I then spoke to teachers at the school and asked them their thoughts and feelings towards numeracy, the teachers described children who were achieving well in maths who then suddenly came to a standstill and did not seem to progress further.

This suggested that the children did not have all the tools or basics they needed to make sustained progress.  Children work at different levels and speeds; some excel in certain subjects whereas others fall behind. The staff recognised that the numeracy strategy provided a useful framework for the teaching of maths, but there was still something missing. We needed to find a method that was tailored to each individual pupil’s ability; it had to compliment the current teaching of numeracy at the school, but at the same time provide important numeracy basics.

A strategy was decided and drawn up; we moved forward on four fronts:

Daily teaching of the basics
All staff at the school introduced in whichever way they felt comfortable, the “basics,” into their daily teaching, including number bonds, tables, unit of measurement and so on.

Consistent maths operations throughout the school
All staff taught each of the four mathematical operations; addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, in the same way and with the same progression.  This allowed the message to be repeated and absorbed by pupils more easily.

Reviewing and obtaining resources
The school reviewed the resources that were offered to pupils when teaching maths. Every room in the school was equipped with basic resources, for example positive and negative number lines, counting squares and timetables displayed on walls.

I can do maths!
We introduced Schofield & Sims mental arithmetic workbooks across Key Stage 2, a structured teaching method used at my previous school, now known as I Can Do Maths.

The first step was to give Year 3 students an entry test to see where they were in terms of ability; once their results had been assessed they were then assigned a workbook that reflected their level in numeracy. Pupils worked on their mental maths before the school bell rang at 9 am; students came into the classroom, picked up their workbook and worked on maths for twenty minutes or so.  People have asked me, “How do you get the children in from the playground to work on maths?” The answer was that the children enjoyed the numeracy workbooks. The children and staff could measure their own improvement in the short and long term.

Once a week the children had ‘marking time’ where each teacher was assigned a group and pupils and teachers marked work during a structured teaching session so that everyone could see how the answer was achieved and one another’s working out. We also saw parents coming into the daily sessions in the mornings; they wanted to see what their child was learning in school and how they could support mental arithmetic at home. Parental engagement therefore increased.

After a term using this new strategy, we saw a dramatic improvement with children quickly moving through the graded workbook, understanding numeracy tasks and most importantly enjoying maths.

Looking to the future

The benefits of using the I Can Do Maths method means that students can apply their numeracy skills across the curriculum, including map reading in geography, dates in history and measurements in design and technology. Self-esteem improves with a positive learning attitude along with better test results.

I would like all the children I teach to have an understanding of maths which is well above that expected of them at the end of primary school. This means they can enter secondary school “number happy” and confident with maths, putting them at the top of the class sets early on. It gives them an extra boost on the steep climb to a successful academic career.

Andrew Dunn is former headteacher of Coatham CE Primary School, Redcar. He has been assistant director for schools, improvement and development with Darlington Borough Council since 2006. Andrew wrote I Can Do Maths a Schofield & Sims teaching guide and workbooks for Key Stage 2 Maths. In September he will return to teaching as headteacher at Sunnyside Primary School, Middlesbrough.