My son is really really good at maths. He likes us to set maths questions while we’re eating. He notices numbers everywhere. He understands fractions, percentages, division multiplication. And he’s only year 2 (that’s 7 years old to you and me). So I was alarmed by the article in the Guardian showing how poor the maths skills are of many primary school teachers. But I’m also not at all surprised. I’m a school governor, and one of the areas I monitor is Maths, so I have some insight into how maths is taught in schools.

There’s a government run system called the Primary Framework, which is used to set standards and assess student progress against. All mathematics planning is based on this – making it hard, even in a good school, to really advance the truly talented students. Within a school, the maths planning is all checked by the maths co-ordinator. Much of the early mathematical teaching is based on simple counting – using physical counters, beads, and other props to really engage the children. As children become familiar with number, they move on to more conceptual ideas – number bonds (pairs of numbers that add up to 10), and describing how they make calculations. None of these activities require a teacher to be vastly skilled – they don’t need to understand percentages to know that 4 and 6 make 10!

So what is the relevance of the poor maths test results reported today? In the day to day teaching, it probably doesn’t matter a great deal. Where it will make a difference is when bright children, like my son, ask awkward questions. But good teachers will be able to facilitate the bright children in answering the questions themselves, even if they don’t immediately know the answer. More problematic is that poor maths skills allow teachers to be bamboozled by things like brain gym. Without a good understanding of maths, it is very difficult to evaluate evidence concerning best teaching practise. Perhaps rather than lamenting poor maths skills, we should be asking how good teachers’ critical thinking skills are.

## Rubbish at Maths? So are teachers…

February 14, 2010 by puddlepie

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on February 14, 2010 at 1:19 pm |beebeefI have a lot to say on this! Firstly, I reject the premise that primary teachers have inadequate maths skills. The ‘survey’ that tells us they do asked 155 primary school teachers maths questions aimed at 11yr olds, hardly a representative sample I would suggest. Also, how many of those have taught upper primary children in the last 5 years say? All primary school teachers have to have GCSE in maths and have to pass a maths test at KS3 level (age 14) to qualify as a teacher. But it is a case of ‘use it or loose it’. If you dont use those skills on a daily basis, as you say if you teach 5yr olds, then you might not immediately bring them to mind. It doesnt mean you couldnt prepare and teach a maths lesson to year 6 pupils. Show me a survey of 1000 or so KS2 (7-11) teachers and then we will talk ;)

Having said all that, of course you are right that the skills needed to teach maths to 5yr olds are somewhat different than those needed to teach maths to 11yr olds. I have A level maths and a science degree but it is a whole different kettle of fish to introduce multiplication to a 6yr old, as I have discovered ;)

The Primary Framework isnt used by all schools. It provides guidance for schools to structure their maths teaching, but it isnt statutory and is not meant to be, nor should be regarded as, prescriptive. Needs of individual children in the class are taken into account and if this means looking for suitable work outside the framework, then this should be done. Same goes for children who are struggling.

I am with you on brain gym though. But when it is taught as fact in teacher training institutions (it was in mine) then you have to excuse teachers for not always going to the source and figuring out for themselves that it is a load of old balony.

on February 14, 2010 at 9:19 pm |PistachioBut the questions weren’t exactly hard:

“Fewer than four out of 10 of those who sat the test – designed for 11-year-olds – could calculate 2.1% of 400, and only a third answered correctly that 1.4 divided by 0.1 was 14.”

That would appal me about the general population, let alone primary teachers! How do these people manage in everyday life – do they get ripped off when doing their shopping regularly? Even if they are only teaching KS1 your should have enough understanding of fractions to be able to answer those questions or there are going to be kids who know more than them. Maybe I’m jaded: when my son was in year 4 (age 9) I had to point out to his teacher that he was correct that the difference between -3 and -7 was 4 not 10 and she had marked that and similar sums wrong when they were right.

on February 15, 2010 at 10:01 am |FlayI didn’t see the Dispatches program so I don’t know the particulars. It seems like a high pressure situation and that can lead to bad performance. But I’d like to call attention to something in that article: “But only six teachers (4%) knew that the answer to 2 divided by 0 was infinity.”. That is not true at all. 2/0 does not have a solution. It is undefined, since the inverse of division is multiplication and there is no number that can be multiplied by zero to give any result but zero. How many questions were there like that, I wonder?

on February 15, 2010 at 10:25 am |ladyblahblahsI agree with Flay. I recently got level 1 (GCSE D-F) in a literacy test, despite having A level English, a degree and, I think, a reasonably good command of the english language*. The second time I did the test, I got level 2 which was the highest the test was designed for (so it would be impossible to go higher). A lot of the time it is about being used to the questions – for instance in the test I did a woman talked about life in the 1950s. She said she was pleased when her father installed a bathroom at home. The question was ‘did she prefer to bathe at home or in a public baths?’ True/False/Can’t tell. I said can’t tell because just because she was pleased, she hadn’t indicated that she wasn’t happy with the previous arrangements, she might have had other reasons for being pleased. Turned out I was trying to outsmart the test because the second time I said true and that was the right answer.

I’m not sure if I could answer the questions you quote, Pistachio, without a calculator, simply because I would never need to work that stuff out without one. People with poor numeracy DO get ripped off all the time which is one reason why there are so many national drives to improve numeracy rates. When I used to work with the CAB, I knew the number of people who couldn’t use a telephone directory. Unfortunately, I can’t remember the figure now, but it was staggeringly high.

Something that can be perfectly obvious to people setting the exam isn’t necessarily to the people answering it. Often it is a case of getting used to the questions (remembering back to the dark days of school, we used to sit tons of back papers before doing exams, presumably because getting people used to the questions is a good way to bring out their best).

*desperately hoping I don’t cock up this message and expose myself to ridicule following this statement!

on February 15, 2010 at 12:07 pm |PistachioI agree people with poor numeracy get ripped off all the time – but should they be able to teach our children? I think it exposes the double standards our society has regarding numeracy compared to literacy. Would we accept teachers who weren’t literate? Maybe a literacy test would similarly appal me – I don’t know – but I suspect not. I’ve worked with people who didn’t know how alphabetical order worked – but I wouldn’t like to think of them teaching my children without those skills.

on February 15, 2010 at 12:18 pm |ladyblahblahsI know exactly what you mean. But I think teachers do have to have a GCSE grade C in maths to get on the training course – so it’s a case of the skills getting rusty I presume rather than them just not getting maths. I think that’s the difference between numeracy and literacy – literacy skills are honed constantly where, as I said before, most people don’t need to do complicated maths very often, and if they do they use a calculator (or google). I agree that if teachers are teaching maths (which I imagine all primary teachers do) then they should have regular training / assessments so they can teach it!

on February 15, 2010 at 12:17 pm |PistachioPS Programme on tonight http://www.channel4.com/programmes/dispatches/episode-guide/series-53/episode-1

on February 17, 2010 at 12:26 pm |beebeefI braced myself and watched the programme last night. It focuses on a primary school with one of the worst SATs test levels in maths in the country, and so is looking at a situation at one end of a big spectrum. As far as teachers in that school, they concentrated on their poor experience of maths during their own education (which is true of the population as a whole I think). I think there are a whole lot of issues going on in that school regardless of the maths, but it seemed that the children did respond to a more reality based (rather than abstract) approach to teaching maths which has been shown before (and is the way I have been taught to approach maths teaching).

As far as the test was concerned, it was nationwide, but there was no information as to whether teachers tested (only 155) were currently responsible for teaching that level of maths. I agree with you that in an ideal world *all* primary school teachers should be able to answer those questions, and it is likely that more training in effective teaching of maths can only be of benefit. But there is a wide range of skills we need in teachers, not just skills in a specific subject. It has been my experience that teachers who are not confident in maths maybe more likely to gravitate towards teaching KS1 children so its kind of self selecting in a way.

On a purely selfish note I was wondering while watching it whether having an A level in maths might help make me more marketable in the job market!

on February 17, 2010 at 9:28 pm |PistachioIt shouldn’t do you any harm – now that all primary schools are going to need a maths specialist!

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