Part 2: How I went from being scared of maths to teaching it (and how I stupidly thought that becoming a secondary English teacher would ensure I’d never have to teach maths again!)

This post continues the story from my last post about my struggles with maths as a child, into adulthood, and even as a primary school teacher expected to teach it.

Whilst teaching at primary, I started noticing that we teachers make a lot of assumptions about what children should already understand by the time they reach a certain stage. Surely a child who can recite their tables up to 12 x 12 perfectly will have a good understanding of multiplication – won’t they?

Not necessarily, it seems. It’s possible to learn something by rote without having a real understanding of what it means, as I discovered with a small group of year 6 girls who couldn’t seem to grasp concepts such as division and fractions.

I took them right back to basics and gave them counters to put into ‘arrays’.

What does 3 x 4 actually look like? And how can that image help with the understanding of division?

It was like seeing a lightbulb come on when we did this. Despite being able to recite multiplication facts, these children hadn’t realised how this linked to other aspects of maths – and this was what was holding them back.

It was this revelation that made me reflect on my own struggles with maths. I’d diligently learned my tables at school. (Those were the days when teachers could give you a clout for not doing so, and I was more wussy than lazy). Still, that didn’t prevent my head from being the target for the flying board rubber: I was unable to relate that tables’ knowledge to division and, later on, to fractions.

You see, I’d learned how to do something without understanding how it worked.

Same with long multiplication and long division at secondary school: I knew the procedures to follow, but didn’t understand why they worked; this meant that I couldn’t recognise my error whenever I arrived at a totally outrageous answer. Which happened a lot.

Many of the methods children learn in primary school seem long-winded to parents who remember the methods the quick were taught. But often these modern methods help children to understand how numbers work. (And those modern methods help quite a few non-maths-specialist primary teachers as well – myself included!)

One telling indictment on the state of maths teaching in our schools was that, during my second year of teaching, I was given the job of leading maths for the whole school. Yes, you read that correctly: someone who was scared of maths – and was often only one step ahead of the kids, having sat up the whole night before a lesson to learn how to teach it – was responsible for implementing maths procedures within the school and for training other members of staff in those procedures.

The pressure almost finished off my teaching career.

Teaching English had always been my real passion, so eventually I left primary teaching and became an English teacher at a secondary school. I believed that I’d never need to look at another maths problem for the rest of my teaching career. English teachers don’t need to teach maths …

That belief was quashed shortly after I was made form tutor for a class of Year 11s.

The year leading to GCSEs is horrendous – for pupils and for teachers. Despite being an English teacher, I found myself becoming a sounding board for a group of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds in my form for whom maths was a complete mystery – just as it had been for me at that age. Much of what they said was familiar: ‘I don’t get how/ why that works’; ‘I can’t remember that method because it doesn’t make sense’; ‘I feel stupid having to ask the same thing over and over again’; ‘My maths teacher has given up on me because I’m never going to get a C’. ‘I’ll never understand maths …’

Before I’d really had time to think about it, I had a group of pupils from my form meeting me after school a couple of times a week whilst we went through some of those basics I’d gone through with my primary pupils. We used pens, sweets, bars of chocolate, crisps (the caretaker wasn’t happy about that one) – anything we could count or use to represent something that could be shared/ cut into fractions/ put into ratios …

Soon we’d moved onto stuff I really didn’t want to think about, and I admitted to my students that I wasn’t teaching; I was learning this along with them. And the pressure on me increased as pupils from other forms had began turning up to these sessions.

We used weighing scales to show how algebraic equations work. We nicked Blu-Tac from corridor displays to make balls that we could then investigate to understand how to calculate the surface area of a sphere. We pilfered grapes, strawberries and tomatoes from the staffroom fridge to demonstrate conditional probability. And I completely exposed my maths-dunciness the first time we tried to recognise quadratic graphs (but we all benefitted from my dreadful mistakes – and had a good laugh along the way. Well, they did!)

That year was a huge learning curve for me, as well as for those young people who’d worked really hard, and who’d helped me more than I ever admitted to them at the time.

By the time I left classroom teaching in 2012 (thanks, Gove!) I’d learned enough about maths to know that I could have done my GCSE again and performed extraordinarily well.

Maybe one day I’ll do just that.

How I went from being scared of maths to teaching it (Part 1)

It’s the summer of 1980. A sixteen-year-old is staring at her maths CSE exam paper (she isn’t good enough to do the O level) feeling sick and wondering how the hell to add two fractions with different denominators.

This paper is worse than she’d ever imagined; she knows the best she can hope for is a grade 3. (She got a grade 4 in the end – that’s on a par with a GCSE grade F.)

That sixteen-year-old was me.

Sweating and sniffling in that sticky, stuffy exam hall, I was aware that this moment was the culmination of eleven years of struggling to understand even the most basic concepts of maths. I was devastated that I was doing so badly, yet relieved that I would never, ever in the future have to sit through another maths lesson …

Fast forward to the summer of 1995, and I’m a 32-year-old mother-of-two sitting in a different exam hall doing my maths GCSE. I need a grade C so I can do my chosen course at university.

It’s been a tough year. Both my children are pre-school; I’ve had no social life or relaxation time as every spare moment has been spent grappling with those same gremlins that had plagued me during my childhood. My husband has been spending his evenings attempting to get through my thick head why X equals 9 and Y equals 5, and not doing a very good job of hiding his frustration and incredulity at my inability to retain the formulas.

I got my C and did my degree, graduating in 2001. I then applied for a place on a teacher training course, whilst working in a voluntary capacity at my children’s school.

Even with a maths GCSE under my belt, I watched teachers explain to eight- and -nine-year-old children concepts that were a revelation to me. I hadn’t realised how easy it was to divide 37 by 10 or 100. I hadn’t thought about how division is the inverse of multiplication, and that using counters to show three multiplied by four could also be used to show twelve divided by three. I hadn’t realised that fractions are division (one half – written as ½ – literally translates as one divided by two).

I was beginning to understand so many maths concepts that I didn’t remember being taught as a child – knowledge of which had been assumed on my GCSE course.

Once I started my teacher training, the pace picked up – especially when I was assigned a year six class where some of the kids were already at GCSE standard. I remember vividly a lesson I had to teach on ratio and proportion. I sat up for the whole of the previous night with tubes of Smarties, arranging them into different ratios of colours: ‘there are four red Smarties for every three green ones; how many red Smarties will there be if there are twelve green?’ ‘There are 28 Smarties; two in every seven are brown – how many brown Smarties are there?’ (Kathy eats twenty orange Smarties every time she cries; how much weight will she put on by the end of the night?)

Despite my new understanding of some of the basics (thanks to Julie Gawthorpe of Bar Hill School!) I still didn’t enjoy maths: indeed, it was giving me more sleepless nights than it had when I was at school.

You may be wondering at this point how I ever began teaching maths – not just to primary children, but to GCSE pupils and adults as well.

It’s nothing short of a miracle, to be honest, but you’ll have to wait for the next instalment.

The trouble with SATs …

It’s that time of year when many year 6 pupils and their parents (and their teachers!) panic about the Standard Assessment Tests (SATs).

Pupil testing has been around for as long as there have been schools, but never have the stakes for all concerned been as high as they are now.

Almost daily, I read reports from various sources about the pressures under which schools are placed to ensure their pupils meet the (often) unrealistic targets set for them. This pressure is inevitably passed on to pupils, causing anxiety – even depression – for far too many.

There are many issues regarding the current testing system, not least the fact that children are missing out on some of the things they should be enjoying during this part of their lives. I don’t mean just the opportunity to play and veg out – that’s a given; I mean also the opportunities to discover things within their education that would be useful in the future.

So much time is spent getting ten- and eleven-year-olds to learn the difference between a clause and a phrase, or to identify prepositional phrases, or to distinguish between a sentence or a noun phrase – quite frankly, stuff many quality writers would struggle to remember – that there’s not enough time to let children just enjoy writing stories where they can use their imaginations freely. There’s not enough time for them to just read a good book and enjoy the experience without having to analyse why the writer used a semi-colon instead of a comma.

For far too many primary pupils, there’s not even enough time to cover basic science.

I’m not against assessments: on the contrary, I think it’s necessary for schools – as well as rewarding for children – to be aware of where achievements have been made and what the next steps are for progress. And quite a few children enjoy the challenge involved in tests.

But this obsession with national targets and league tables has led to a narrowing of the curriculum where a disproportionate amount of time is spent on maths and English to the detriment of more physical, creative or scientific subjects.

That’s a real shame for those children who excel at art, or sport, or music, but who find maths or English challenging. Constantly being compared with ‘the nation’ is giving so many children the message that their talents are worthless.

I’m pretty old and struggle with anything tech related. If I was told I had to spend all my time learning how to programme computers rather than doing the stuff I’m good at, I’d become pretty despondent about my self-worth. I’d probably throw a few tantrums. I certainly wouldn’t learn anything.

Imagine how it feels for a child to have to miss the things they love so they can spend more time doing the things they find a struggle. No wonder so many children hate school and misbehave.

Childhood learning should be about discovery – not being constantly compared to every other child of the same age.

Is ‘maths anxiety’ affecting your child?

This week, I read with interest a report revealing the results of a study carried out by the Cambridge University Faculty of Education and the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, exploring children’s maths anxiety.

I remember those feelings very well from when I was a child and despair that there are still children feeling like that today – some of them as young as six.

There are so many factors that can exacerbate a child’s belief that maths is scary, not least of all the tendency for some parents to claim that their child ‘gets that from me – I was always rubbish at maths.’

It’s as if we’re expected to find maths more of a struggle than other subjects, and that anyone who actually enjoys it must be some kind of genius.

Really, it doesn’t have to be like that.

The problem in primary schools is that many teachers are not maths specialists and have been conditioned to believe that maths will always be a struggle. (I remember once sitting up all night preparing for a year six lesson on ratio.)

Of those teachers who are maths specialists – in primary and secondary – some are inclined to believe maths should be as easy for everyone as it is for them. Once it’s been explained, what’s not to get?

Unfortunately, for every pupil who ‘gets it’ there’s another who doesn’t. That pupil might get it eventually, if only there were time and resources available to present it to them in different ways. Our schools are more underfunded than ever at present, so for many that’s unlikely.

There needs to be more time spent on allowing children to understand ‘how’ the numbers work, rather than just a reliance on learning what to do with them. This should involve being allowed to play with counters, Lego, money … anything that brings to life how different maths patterns and concepts work.

Parents can play a huge part in this – even those parents who think they’re ‘rubbish’ at maths. As well as encouraging children to spend more time playing with some of the above, let them help with stuff at home.

Cooking: weighing (measures); adapting recipes (ratio); cooking times (algebra, time).

Shopping: finding the best value (division, ratio, percentages); budgeting (money, adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing).

Decorating: measuring a room (units of measure); working out how much paint/ wallpaper might be needed (area and perimeter); designing a pattern for tiles (symmetry, ratio) – anything that encourages them to experience real life maths in action.  

Much of this probably sounds pretty obvious, but I know from when my own children were at primary school, I was inclined to think those things were covered in the classroom.

If we can get children to see that maths isn’t just this abstract, inaccessible subject, we can help to ease their anxieties.

‘That’s not how I was taught.’

Possibly one of the most frustrating things about helping your child with maths is how much the teaching has changed since you were at school.

My children were already at primary school when I began my teacher training, and I was often completely stumped by some of the weird and wonderful methods they insisted on using instead of the few methods I still remembered learning from that bloke with the leather elbow patches.

‘No mum! Miss says we have to use a number line/ the grid method/ partitioning/ chunking … ‘

The what, now?

Once I began watching teachers in action during my training, a lot of those weird methods started to make sense, and there were a few I wish I’d been taught at school.

I struggled with maths at school. Well, let’s put it another way: I struggled with how maths was taught when I was at school. I’m guessing that’s the case for many children who struggle with maths today – and with many adults who struggle to help their children.

Many schools hold workshops for parents where they show the methods they teach to children. These workshops don’t always fit in with parents’ busy lives; even if they did, there are many parents who are perfectly confident with their own maths abilities and don’t relish the thought of being taught to suck eggs by their child’s hip, twenty-something teacher (who probably specialises in a subject other than maths anyway).

Other schools provide booklets that include the methods taught, but these can cause confusion for those parents whose own maths confidence isn’t great. Watching and doing are much better methods of learning than reading instructions written by someone who probably doesn’t understand what it’s like to be frightened of maths.

All this isn’t helped by the continuing change. I work with many year six pupils who remember being taught ‘hundreds, tens and units’ for place value but who are now told it’s ‘hundreds, tens and ones’. Some still say ‘units’ (as do I, sometimes: it’s a hard habit to break after decades of saying ‘units’).

Today’s methods focus on getting children to understand what is happening to the numbers – the reasoning behind the concepts. This is great when children are confident enough to try these methods for themselves, but not so great for those who need their parents’ help but can see that mum or dad is also struggling to understand.

I remember clearly searching the internet for ‘how to help my child with maths’. Now I know and hope I can help you too.

‘That’s another day I didn’t need algebra!’

You’ve probably seen those amusing memes on social media, along the lines of the title above.

There are many aspects of maths for which pupils – and parents – ask, ‘When will this ever be useful in real life?’ Algebra is the topic that comes up most often in these conversations.

You wouldn’t expect year 6 algebra to be beyond the wit of the average adult, but actually some primary teachers struggle with it as well. Don’t be disheartened if you struggle to help your child with maths.

I have to be honest, a lot of algebra will be forgotten and never needed (unless your child is planning on studying maths beyond GCSE) but some aspects are used in our everyday lives more than we realise.

One example is formulas (or ‘formulae’ if you want to be pedantic) which is just one sub-strand of the year 6 algebra strand within the key stage 2 maths framework.

Most Sundays, I cook a roast dinner. To avoid having my family ending up in Addenbrooke’s with E. coli or salmonella, I use my grandmother’s recommended formulas for cooking meat properly.

She recommends cooking beef by putting it in a very hot oven for an initial 20 minutes, then lowering the temperature and allowing 30 minutes per kg of meat. Because some members of my family won’t eat beef if there’s a hint of pink, I add another 10 minutes to the cooking time.

Cooking time = 20 + (30 x weight) + 10

Although I don’t write it out to look like a year six algebra problem, algebra is exactly what I’m doing.

When you get someone to look at your faulty car/ computer/ mobile phone/ whatever’s decided to let you down this week, it’s likely you’ll be charged an initial fee for the appointment, plus however much that person charges per hour. The same if you book a taxi or hire machinery.

Think about all the occasions in everyday life when you need to use formulas and see if you can get your child to help you calculate some of them: algebra makes a lot more sense when it’s applied to real-life situations. Then get your child to say: ‘That’s another day I needed algebra!’