IoE Professor says maths teaching must be turned on its head
In his inaugural professorial lecture, titled Making mathematics phenomenal, Professor David Pratt presents research showing how technology and innovative teaching methods can make maths more "exciting and powerful".
One reason why children struggle with maths is that the subject is taught backwards, according to a leading expert from the Institute of Education, University of London.
"Maths is usually taught the opposite way round to other subjects," says Professor David Pratt. "For instance, with a language you learn it by speaking it, but with maths you learn about it first and then use it later." However, the technology-based methods he has developed turn this back around and enable the students to learn maths as they use it.
Say you are a secondary maths student trying to decide on the best route for a village bypass. Would you pick the cheapest route? What about the hospital that would have to be knocked down? After all, there's more that needs to be considered than just cash sums.
Bringing ethical considerations and social costs into maths lessons is one way to make the subject more engaging and real for students, he says.
Levels of numeracy have long been a subject of concern in this country. Many children become disengaged with maths at school and retain this attitude into adulthood, becoming almost proud of their lack of understanding.
New figures from the government's Skills for Life survey show that 17 million adults in England have the maths skills of 11-year-olds. Poor numeracy is known to damage life chances, affecting people's employment prospects as well as their ability to handle their own personal finances.
"The numbers of those pursuing maths at degree level are now worryingly low, as it for those going into the careers where maths is required," says Professor Pratt, a former maths teacher.
"The problem with maths is that it is taught in a way that is disconnected from the children. They don't see how it is relevant to their lives. It is presented only through abstract concepts, rather than in terms of experiences," he says. "Seeing how you can use maths to answer problems and get stuff done is the key. Many students never understand why they are learning algebra, for example, but this approach makes it much more meaningful.
"Tasks such as the village bypass exercise also show the limitations of maths, that it cannot solve everything, but it puts the subject in a context that makes it more engaging", he adds.
Making mathematics phenomenal An inaugural professorial lecture by Dave Pratt, 14th March 2012, Paperback, ISBN 978-0-85473-921-9, 30 pages, £5.00 is published by Institute of Education Publications
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