Primary school maths – How we built a maths-loving culture
Ditch the cassettes and bread, and lean into Snow White’s triangles and traffic lights to spark joy, says Catherine Magee…
Primary school maths is the Marmite subject of the curriculum. For those that don’t enjoy it, once that negative mindset takes hold, it is exceptionally difficult to change.
There can also be barriers to enjoying maths at home, which make it an uphill struggle from the start.
Some parents feel they are not good at the subject. I often hear “My mum/granny/grandad was terrible at maths”.
This makes it very hard to conquer what the child, and indeed the parents, can label as a genetic predisposition to fall short.
Moreover, a child not enjoying the subject can also lead to the feeling of “I’m rubbish at maths”.
Incompetence vs motivation
From my experience, I have realised that motivation is directly equitable with competence, which is also directly equitable with being right or wrong.
If a child feels incompetent in maths, they become demotivated and disengaged.
Since there is only either a right or wrong answer in maths, regularly experiencing the latter can be dispiriting.
Unlike literacy – where you can offer your own point of view – the often-black-and-white nature of the maths world can intimidate children.
So how can we, as teachers, get ahead of these feelings and help develop a life-long love of maths? Here are a few things that have worked for me:
Fractions, decimals and percentages
In my classroom, I found fractions and percentages to be one of the areas that pupils struggled with most.
Research carried out by educational software company Renaissance has found that teachers identified maths skills such as fractions, decimals and percentages as those causing the most difficulty.
Over a third of teachers (34 per cent) said these skills had been the most heavily affected by Covid disruption.
To support my pupils in this area I use a ‘flipped classroom’ model.
This is when children are introduced to new learning ahead of the lesson, so that face-to-face teaching can focus on fixing misconceptions and deepening understanding.
Using Google Classroom, I post a video of myself talking through the process, along with helpful worksheets, links to YouTube videos, and useful reading materials.
It’s important to not overwhelm the children before the class; this shouldn’t end up being an extra lesson – more an introduction to the content.
Then, when I come to formally teaching the children, they already have more confidence and greater understanding.
This way, more of the class time can be spent on working on live problems and strengthening problem-solving skills.
Outside of the actual equations, supporting the class with comprehensively laying out their work in an easy-to-understand format can make a huge difference to their understanding.
I always encourage my pupils to write down whatever notes help them solve the problem at hand, when they ask how they should set out their work.
Encouraging neat presentation and using as much space as needed supports their logical thinking and learning.
Cramped sums and disordered layouts will make their learning more difficult, especially when looking back and revising.
Differentiation in maths
One of my favourite resources to address differentiation amongst students is Freckle, an online learning platform that allows students to practise maths.
It allows customisation, individualisation, personalised pacing and tailored teaching – all the ingredients that when cooked together immensely satisfy each child’s individual appetite for maths.
This can be done in the classroom by any teacher with or without software, using worksheets or similar. The key thing to remember is pupils need to be completing work that is appropriate for their level of learning – enough to be comforting and create confidence, yet also stretch and enhance learning.
The old mantra of ‘happy children learn’ is very much true in this instance. The children make progress because they enjoy the sense of purpose they get from doing the work.
Traffic lights for learning
Effective communication is key in creating maths enjoyment. Always ask your pupils if they have any questions, and create an environment where they can share any concerns.
Sometimes, saying something in a slightly different way can spark that bit of previously missed understanding.
You can encourage the children to ‘Traffic Light’ the work, too. They can put a green, orange or red circle on their work in accordance with their understanding.
This informs the teacher’s planning and highlights maths areas that need further reinforcement and consolidation.
Maths is a unique subject and this presents many challenges. However, there are a number of initiatives and techniques that reduce the fear of maths and help create a joy around it among all students.
Armed with the right tools and through sharing our own passion for the subject, we can help to create a generation of pupils who think and say, “I do like maths. I am good at maths.”
Maths activity ideas
Make it practical
Release the students from behind their desks! In fact – write on them.
In a recent lesson on parallel / perpendicular lines and angles, we covered the desks with strips of masking tape to create all sorts of shapes, then, using whiteboard markers, we drew in the angles, identifying them as acute, obtuse, right or reflex, as well as labelling the lines.
Make it cross-curricular
Link with other topics you are covering. For example, we designed a symmetrical floor for the first-class dining room on The Titanic. Not only does this make maths fun, but as the curriculum is so crowded, it’s a ‘two for one’ lesson.
What better way to improve maths’ reputation and status than to pair it with arguably the coolest subject in the curriculum – ICT!
Students love it when tech is involved in class learning – for Christmas, we kept track of Santa’s incomings and outgoings using an Excel spreadsheet.
Apply it to real life
Don’t use word problems involving buying cassette tapes for 23p and loaves of bread for 20p. Talk about financial capability and how we almost live in a cashless society.
Incorporate this sort of terminology into word problems such as ‘John has a contactless card and the maximum he can spend is £30 – John buys…’ Let students see the fruits of their labour – make it relevant, transmit the message that learning maths is valid and necessary!
Make it colourful
We recently did a lesson called Snow White and Her Seven Triangles! Children were given pictures of the dwarves’ heads, then had to add the corresponding bodies using triangles, (isosceles, equilateral etc…). Injecting art and colour into maths instead of the usual squared paper and pencil is imminently more fun and memorable.
Catherine Magee is a Year 5 teacher and SLT member at St Comgalls School. Catherine won Teacher of the Year in 2021 and is passionate about supporting other teachers with maths motivation and engagement in the classroom.