Back in the 1960s Maths changed. A new, more progressive form of mathematics was introduced. It arose out of a focus on pupil-centred learning and an attempt to adapt teaching styles to how it was believed children actually learned things. Much of this was good, but it has also led to a very muddled and confusing approach in the delivery of basic numeracy skills to children. There was a greater emphasis on children leading the educational process through their own enquiry, i.e. here is a problem – how are we going to solve it? The potential solution could involve some kind of algorithm, so we’ll try that, or we could try something else etc.
Ironically, the National Curriculum, which was introduced in the early 1990s in primary schools, was an attempt to organise this into some kind of system. However, organisation smacks of a more traditional approach and efforts to put some kind of structure on this very progressive curricular approach were disastrous. The curriculum seemed like a jumble of ideas with no central theme. Insult was added to injury with the introduction of the ‘National Numeracy Strategy’ which attempted to add ‘meat on the bones’ and provide some kind of teaching system for teachers to deliver. This was supposed to be rolled out in the ‘Numeracy Hour’ each day in the classroom. There were some modest improvements but nothing dramatic happened. I would put the improvements down to the fact that children were just doing more maths.
What do we conclude? This 50 year progressive experiment has completely failed. The UK is now placed 25 out of 27 developed nations in numeracy (benchmarked against age-related expectations in other nations). This is hardly something to be proud of but those who advocate progressivism are undaunted and unapologetic about the disastrous effect of their approaches. The obvious thing to do is to retrace our steps and realise that a more traditional approach is the answer. In the enthusiasm for new approaches in education ‘the baby was thrown out with the bath water’ back in the 1960s. We should have kept the ‘water’ and the ‘baby.’ In other words, keep what is good and add in the new insights.
To use the crude analogy of a building site – imagine Maths as all the materials we need to build a house. The progressive approach could be characterised as dumping all these materials on the building site and asking the children to sort them out and construct a house – of course they can ask the foreman (teacher) for advice if they get stuck. A more traditional approach would be to teach the children all the skills needed to build a house first and how everything has to be done in a particular order. You must lay the foundation first, then build the walls, add the windows, then put on the roof and then wire it up, plumb it, decorate it and finally add the soft furnishings.
What do we learn from this? Maths is a highly structured subject and children can only grasp mathematical principles when the foundation is laid first and other skills are carefully built on this foundation. It cannot be taught in a muddled, ‘patchwork quilt’ style. Children need to organise and structure their thinking and the curriculum and the teacher must help them do this.
It is interesting to note that a number of those countries that were previously part of the ‘British Empire’ have retained this more traditional approach to teaching maths. Singapore, for example, uses a more ‘traditional’ maths curriculum and is consistently ranked as the best in the world.*
The new National Curriculum in the UK will take a more traditional approach. The objective is to give children the tools they need to become ‘independent, creative thinkers’. If this has succeeded in Singapore we are delighted that schools in the UK will now be adopting a similar system. We expect that it will not be long before we see improvements here too and our children will be among the best in the world at numeracy.
* Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) world rankings