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Rob Eastaway and Mike Askew: Parents need to engage with maths

Posted by Eagle Eye
  • Thursday, 7 January 2010 at 12:11 pm
"Mum, dad, can you help me with my maths homework?" It's an innocent enough request, yet the results of a survey of parents published today show that in many homes it is the source of conflict and distress.

Why? In part, it is because on the face of it primary mathematics has changed beyond recognition. Gone in most schools are the familiar if mechanical techniques of long multiplication and long division that we knew of old. In their place have come a new language and an unfamiliar set of techniques. Do you know your number bonds mum and dad? Division by chunking, anyone? Even parents who are confident in their mathematical ability can be frustrated by the communication barriers with their children. And for many parents who struggled with maths at school, the temptation to avoid engaging in maths at home has become irresistible.

But does it matter? After all, isn't school where children learn maths, and if they are taught a different way then so be it. Unfortunately, the evidence from international research is that a child's success in maths depends as much on their home experience as what they do at school. China, for example, is widely held to have high levels of attainment in mathematics and research indicates that Chinese parents are highly likely to provide direct instruction in mathematics to their children and help them with homework. Nearer to home, Finland has recently scored very highly on studies on children's mathematical problem solving.

Part of this success appears to rest on schools making early contact with parents to discuss what provisions to make for children falling behind, which raises parental awareness of how to boost their child’s attainment in mathematics from an early age.

Looking at countries with high mathematical attainment, one thing they have in common is the importance parents place on their children doing well in mathematics and taking an interest in their children’s progress. In Britain, in contrast with most of the world, it is common for adults to boast about how inept they were at maths at school, though perhaps this comes from a widespread fear and anxiety about the subject. If parents in England are anxious or unconfident about school mathematics themselves, then even if they do not pass on their fears to their children, their own lack of confidence is likely to make them reluctant to engage with the subject.

There are two steps needed to tackle this problem in Britain (particularly England and Wales). The first is to help parents become familiar with the new language and the current ways in which maths is taught. (Don't be frightened by the jargon, most of this new-fangled stuff is very straightforward, and easier to understand than the techniques it replaced.)

The second is that parents need to engage in more mathematical conversations with their children. One natural way to do this is by doing everyday tasks together – measuring ingredients, working out change and so on. Another is by playing games with them – tactile games that use counters, dice, playing cards and paper money and which create opportunities for human interaction. The Nintendo DS has its place, but if we really want our children to develop mathematically, maybe it's time to blow the dust off the Monopoly Board and spend some quality family time around the dining room table. And remember, games are for life, not just for Christmas.

Rob Eastaway and Mike Askew are the authors of Maths for Mums & Dads, Square Peg £9.99


maths at school
zemblya wrote:
Friday, 8 January 2010 at 02:49 pm (UTC)
My 6 yr-old's school invited parents recently to an afterschool meeting with the teachers to discuss how maths was taught, and I was really impressed with both their enthusiasm and the teaching methods they used. A great deal of emphasis on learning the times table by heart, and very intuitive teaching techniques both of which I wish I had been exposed to at his age (I'm a latecomer fan of maths). As a result he thinks maths is fun and "normal", not something to be frightened of. It was a shame that of the 65 children at his school, only 12 parents came to the meeting.