How to love maths

group of students arms up in classroom

It is time to think differently, support diversity, and teach maths for the world our children live in today, says Karen McGuigan. Let’s give them the opportunity to love maths.

The starting point for helping a student with maths is to address how you feel about the subject yourself. Many adults in the UK do not have a great relationship with maths, and not being good at maths can be seen as a badge of honour. Studies into maths anxiety show that it is passed from one generation to the next, from parent to child, from teacher to student. As adults, we can make the biggest difference to the maths attainment of the next generation by simply changing our mindset. ‘Maybe I could love maths’

Memory plays an important role, as working mathematically uses all three types of memory systems:

Short term memory—the ability to remember the start of the question by the time you get to the end of it, for example when asked, “How many boys play football after school on a Wednesday?” remembering it was boys; football; after school; and Wednesday.

Long term memory—the ability to file knowledge into your automatic recall memory by means of repetition, for example when asked, “What is 6 times 7?” answering 42 without any need for a calculation or thought process.

Working memory—the ability to hold a piece of information in your head, do something and then retrieve that information to use it, for example when asked, “If the piano lesson is 40 minutes long and finished at 3.20 PM, what time did it start?” It’s the ability to remember the two pieces of information while doing the calculation. 

As an educator, it is important to recognise that a deficit in one or more of these memory types will affect a student’s mathematical ability. However, by recognising the deficiency the educator can put strategies in place to compensate—visuals to aid short term memory, strategies to derive rather than recall, and the use of accessories such as number lines or cubes to support the calculations.

Working step-by-step with understanding 
A methodology is a step-by-step, repeatable process to follow in order to achieve the desired result. We have many examples of methodology in today’s maths curriculum: columnar addition and subtraction, grid multiplication, and bus stop division. The issue is that without understanding, the methodology is useless. 

Let me explain. I taught my son the methodology for brushing his teeth and, although he could do it successfully, he still needed to be reminded daily to do this because I forgot to teach him why he needs to brush his teeth. He didn’t understand that failure to do so could lead to cavities, pain and the need for dental treatment. With understanding and methodology, he now brushes his teeth with a lot less prompting.

Example—Lance has difficulty remembering the order of numbers. To help support his working memory, we provide a worksheet with the number line on it for assistance.

Maths in real life
We often see this lack of understanding with students. They can do ‘sums’ following methodology, but if the sum is delivered as a real-life word problem, they don’t understand what to do, or they apply the wrong methodology. Technology now exists on our mobile phones to do the methodology, however, without understanding, the technology is rendered useless. The understanding of maths concepts in real life application should be a priority with technology-enabled methodology. “Siri, what is 6 times 7?”

Case study—Emma could do two-digit column addition following the methodology but when asked the simple word problem—”Farha has 18 coloured pencils and Zoe has 16 coloured pencils. How many coloured pencils do they have altogether?”—she had no idea what to do. We used visually framed questions to help Emma understand the real application of addition and how to create the number sum she needs to calculate. 

Finding the right carrot
If I asked you to learn French next week, would you? Highly unlikely. If I offered you a free trip to Paris if you learn French next week, would you be more inclined to do it? Of course. You are motivated. You can see what the outcome of the effort will be. Just like us, students need to know what’s in it for them. They need to see maths applied in real life to understand the benefit of learning it. 

Example—Thomas is obsessed with Friends, the US television series. To engage him with data handling questions we used this table. For homework, he was tasked to watch another episode, keep a tally chart of appearances and, during the following lesson, he was helped to create a bar chart with the results.

From the prenumber skills, think about understanding the mathematical meaning of ‘big’ and ‘small’. If I model ‘big’ and ‘small’ using ice cream cones and ask the student to choose which option they would prefer. Assuming they choose the ‘big’ ice cream, I label their choice as the ‘big’ ice cream and refer to the option they are not choosing as the ‘small’ ice cream. I reinforce the meaning of ‘big’ and ‘small’ visually and in a way that benefits the student to remember. Next time, without visual representation, I ask the student if they want a big or a small ice cream. I will put money on the fact that the student remembers what ‘big’ means.

As educators, it is important to tap in to what motivates a student—their interests, their hobbies, their culture. In today’s world, it might be more motivating to work out the question, “Which TikTok post has got more likes?” than the “Which book has got more pages?” option.

Karen McGuigan

Karen McGuigan is an education consultant with a goal to improve the image and attainment levels in maths for everyone.Inspired by her middle son Lance, who has Down syndrome, she has developed the Maths For Life programme. It is a differentiated approach to teaching maths that is designed for students with additional learning needs, for whom the standard maths national curriculum structure and timescale is unattainable.
Twitter: @themathsmum
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