Don’t Be Scared, It’s Only Maths!

INTRODUCTION

I was co-moderating a webinar a few days ago when the subject of numeracy came up, and I had my usual rant about the teaching thereof. Now, I would like to share my thoughts on some of the challenges that teachers might face when it comes to maths.

THE TEACHER’S OWN UNDERSTANDING.

One of my teachers in kindergarten had a very good understanding of how to teach place value. She made it simple for this six year-old child to see the pattern. She praised correct answers to questions, and fostered my own fascination with patterns. Later teachers also taught the patterns of numeracy, and I was hooked for life. This is evident in both my work and my leisure activities.

Other teachers in my primary schooling demonstrated a poor grasp of not just numeracy, but also of reasoning (the next step up in the field of mathematics). It was this that caused me to rant.

A STUDENT PERSPECTIVE

I have heard two main reasons for why people find maths less than appealing. The first is that “it is all too complicated”. This may be due to the intellectual bias of the learner, but most of the time it seems to come down to the teacher lacking either or both of two key skills: a thorough grasp of the material being taught, and an ability to put it across in such a way that the student can learn. The other reason is that students don’t engage with the subject: they do not see it as being relevant to their lives. Again, this comes down to the teacher: the relevance of numbers in our lives is not communicated.

A PERSONAL RECOLLECTION

I cannot remember a time when I was unable to do simple multiplications in my head, so working out the total cost of three bananas at \$2.00 each is trivially easy for me. At the other extreme, I have seen people being totally confused when I have tendered \$12.30 for an item costing \$7.30 . Having said that, I can share an experience where the real-life relevance of what I was learning was not to become apparent for 20 years.

There is something called “constrained optimisation”, where the basic idea is to make as much money as possible from any given situation, usually some sort of manufacturing. The favourite scenario used by maths teachers seems to be breweries. I can also remember this being used in my own schooling, but I soon forgot about it in the flood of mathematical techniques that I was learning. In terms using of those techniques in the abstract setting of a high school maths class, I was entirely comfortable

It was not until 20 years later that the importance of those mathematical techniques in the human context was to become apparent to me. I was told by my employer that the results of my mathematical labours were saving them around \$10 million each year. Had it not been for my own fascination with patterns, I would not have remembered what I had learned 20 years previously.

CONCLUSION

The human cost of innumeracy should not be underestimated. I see it every time I care to look (which is not very often, as I find it distressing). I see innumeracy as being as disabling as illiteracy. If this post is about anything, it is a plea to decision makers to drag the teaching of mathematics up to the level that applies to literacy.