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Teaching primary school Mathematics (8)

By WACHIRA KIGOTHO | September 28th 2013 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300


In future, teachers in Kenya  may be forced to abandon traditional  methods of teaching primary school  Mathematics, where pupils’ learning progress is measured by their ability to recite multiplication tables and to store other  basic calculation  solutions  in memory.

Basic education researchers at the University of London’s Institute of Education have found that primary school children can make progress in Mathematics even if they do not know their tables by heart.

“Incomplete ignorance of number facts is not a barrier to success in Mathematics,” says Prof Richard Cowan, lead researcher of the study.

According to Cowan, conceptual knowledge of principles was found to be superior in solving simple calculations than learning facts and memorising tables. However, most primary school syllabuses in many countries are based on traditional view that expects children to know answers to basic calculation problems by end of Standard Three. Teaching is often through rapid mental calculations and pupils’ progress is measured on how quickly they are able to answer basic mathematical questions. “This mode of teaching equates proficiency with having solutions to basic calculations stored in long term memory as number facts that can be quickly and accurately retrieved,” says Cowan.

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However, if teachers and parents want to help their children to learn Mathematics properly, then they should encourage them to use their knowledge of principles to solve problems and not merely to memorize the answers to problems like little parrots. According to Prof David Geary, an educational psychologist at the University of Missouri, the best way to teach Mathematics is to let pupils to understand numbers and the quantities that those numbers represent.

Reporting findings  of a study, Cognitive Predictors of Achievement Growth in Mathematics, in the recent issue of the journal, Developmental Psychology, Geary said understanding numbers and quantity is key to laying the  foundation for success as a pupil progresses to more complex math topics.

The most important finding of Geary’s study is that mathematical knowledge is incremental and is not founded on isolated facts. In the  five-year study,  Geary and his team of researchers noted that  pupils  that can go back and forth easily and quickly in translating numerals-the number five, for example-into quantities and in breaking complex problems into smaller parts had a very good head start.

The new interest on how pupils make progress in Mathematics is based on the fact that understanding this subject has become critical towards success in many fields. But once pupils fall behind, it is almost impossible to get them back on track. Nevertheless, children differ in their mathematical performance at the end of the primary school and hence the importance to improve their basic understanding of the subject. “Teachers have to know what to instruct as these are factors that would make a difference in the first years of schooling beyond pupils’ inherent intelligence,” says Geary.

Performance at primary school

The issue is that for most pupils, performance at primary school predicts subsequent mathematical achievement and ability to manage the numerical demands of everyday life and adulthood. “Consequently, understanding what causes individual differences and what will help primary children develop, could yield long-term benefits,” says Cowan.

Whereas educational researchers are aware that child attainment in Mathematics could be influenced by family and school characteristics, there are indicators that a child’s individual differences are the ones that are strongest and could be improved upon.  Child level variables related to mathematical performance include cognitive factors that correlate with general educational achievement-general ability, memory functioning, processing speed, and oral language-and socio-emotional functioning.

However, the main worry is that as a result of poor teaching techniques, many pupils have come to fear sums. In such circumstances, a large number of pupils leaves schooling without ability to calculate even most basic sums needed for everyday life, such as calculating household bills.

“As a result, victims of poor teaching of Mathematics continually, keep on worrying about basic arithmetic and numbers,” says Cowan. The situation can be averted if teachers realise that mathematical performance can be improved if pupils are made to understand basic principles and patterns of numbers. The issue is that there is logical connection between simple and complex arithmetic and achievement in basic calculation is central to understanding higher mathematics.

But while the debate rages as to whether pupils should memorise their tables or not, the situation on the ground is that around one in five adults globally have problems understanding basic mathematics and have below functional levels of literacy.

Perhaps, the time is now for teachers to change tact and adopt new strategies in teaching methods.


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