Stop telling children maths isn’t for them!
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Stop telling children maths isn’t for them!

Professor Jo Boaler advises us to ditch our rigid approach to teaching mathematics!

Jo Boaler's first teaching job in the mid-eighties was at Haverstock Comprehensive in north London. As the new arrival, she was given the bottom set in maths. She found herself in front of twenty-two pupils who had already been told that the highest grade they would ever get at GCSE was a D, and found it extremely hard as to know what to say back to them.

The scenario is a familiar one.  Around three in ten of all pupils taking GCSE maths in this country get a grade D or lower. Traditional responses include extra lessons, more homework or after-school clubs but Boaler opted for something altogether more radical.  She persuaded the school maths department to "de-set" and allow her to teach her class and those further up the ladder, in mixed-ability groups, very quickly seeing huge improvements.

Her best-known contribution, though, to tackling our national failings in maths has been a mass-market paperback that has become the handbook for any parent haunted by their child's complaining that maths just isn't for them.  The Elephant in the Classroom, first published in 2009, has attracted an enthusiastic and vocal fan club among mums, dads and professionals.

These are Professor Boaler's "Six top tips" on how to Get wise with maths:-

1) Encourage children to play maths puzzles and games at home.  Anything with a dice will help them enjoy maths and develop numeracy and logic skills.

2)  Never tell children they are wrong when they are working on maths problems.  There is always some logic to what they are doing.  So if your child multiples three by four and gets seven, try: "Oh I see what you are thinking, you are using what you know about addition to add three and four.  When we multiply we have four groups of three..."

3)  Maths is not all about speed. In younger years, forcing children to work fast on maths can actually be the best way to start maths anxiety, especially among girls.

4)  Don't tell your children you were bad at maths at school.  Or that you disliked it.  This is especially important if you are a mother.

5)  Encourage number sense.  What separates high and low achievers in primary school is number sense.

6)  Encourage a "growth mind-set" - the idea that ability changes as you work more and learn more.

So what does research tell us good maths should look like in a primary school?  Boaler's response:

"Teachers have to explain clearly and then engage the children in activity that makes them think about maths. Give them a few hard problems to work on, rather than forty small ones to make them memorise a method.  Let them debate and explore so that they decide what the best method for tackling that problem is. Don't just tell them and practise what you have said!"

The Elephant in the Classroom  (Souvenir Press, RRP £12.99)

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