Mathematically speaking, less can certainly be more

School children in a classroom. Photo credit: Danny Lawson/PA Wire. Via Jewish News
School children in a classroom. Photo credit: Danny Lawson/PA Wire. Via Jewish News

At this stage in the pandemic, we are rightly reflecting on lessons that can be learned from the experience of the past year. With a desire to further address the mental health and well-being of our young citizens, I’d like to ask which lessons can be changed – classroom lessons, that is – particularly in the realm of mathematics.

The Department of Education seems to have  adopted a philosophy more in tune with the British Army; the more ground we cover in as short a time as possible, the better!

This approach, which is adhered to across most subjects in our curriculum, is supposed to create brighter students who will achieve greater academic success and will, therefore, be more valuable in society.  The problem is we are trying to educate children in a classroom – not soldiers on the battlefront. We need a different strategy…

The majority of students who arrive on my doorstep for support in mathematics are initially, at best, filled with confusion and fear (at primary level);  at worst, filled with despair and a lack of motivation (at secondary level).

Of course, every student will have individual needs, but the common denominator for their misery is rooted, I believe, in the inappropriate curriculum requirements. The current primary and secondary maths curriculum is more demanding than it has ever been, both in breadth and depth.

From the moment children step foot into the school system, they are entering into a race against time with the teachers, to cover all the prescribed topics before the end of the academic year. But one size does not fit all – and many children can’t keep up and teachers, understandably, feel frustrated. Without adequate opportunities to absorb, practise, explore connections between topics and, dare I say, begin to ‘enjoy’ maths, many students become more and more fearful of more and more demanding concepts because they are still grappling with the fundamentals.

To this end, some of the topics prescribed on the curriculum are, sadly, introduced too early on. For example, teaching decimals and percentages to nine and 10-year-olds (sophisticated topics that rely heavily on a solid understanding of fractions), is, I believe, asking for trouble. And so we see a negative cycle developing; increased levels of confusion leading to lower levels of confidence resulting in poor test marks (we British do like our regular tests!). This leads to feelings of ‘failure’ and increased anxiety until we hear three infamous words – “I hate maths!”

Some headteachers are now questioning the approach to assessment at GCSE level. They are beginning to recognise reform introduced in 2017 to deliberately make maths GCSE harder, has resulted in unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety, particularly among those young people struggling to achieve minimum level 4.

Sadly, without this qualification, many doors are closed for future career prospects, which makes it all the more worrying.

But it is not headteachers alone who will bring about change. Parents and students must also speak out. The pandemic has provided an ideal opportunity to press for educational change; a curriculum that is more age appropriate, better suited to differing ability levels and, above all, sensitive to the mental health and well-being of our children.

For their sakes, we must seize the moment.


About the Author
Rochelle Lax primary school teacher and maths tutor
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