Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati
I absolutely loved mathematics when I was a kid. I loved manipulating numbers and equations, and I loved the challenge of completing complex problems involving logic and algebra.
My teachers loved mathematics too (and I’m not just talking about my maths teachers).
I was lucky enough to attend St. Richard Gwyn High School, Flint, North Wales. As a prestigious and caring community, every teacher collectively aimed to help each other.
As a teacher myself many years later, all of this is clear to me now.
Take, for example, my form tutor: she was an English Teacher but when I was a keen and boyish Year 7 student she would happily read through my mathematics homework which I proudly presented to her in morning registration on a weekly basis.
“Great equations Richard, and well done for clearly showing what x is equal to. Not many students lay out their calculations so well like you have. Keep it up!”.
That made a difference. It was a confidence booster for sure.
Numeracy in my life
I guess I’m somewhat of an anomaly compared with the majority of people. I’ve been a maths teacher in the past, and I’m currently a Science teacher. Two decades ago, when my mates would ask “When am I ever going to use this maths stuff in real life?” I can honestly give them a real answer – I use it every day in my job.
But it doesn’t stop there.
After getting really interested in the world of self-help books about a decade ago, I learnt that mathematics can actually be a gateway for financial freedom for anyone. All of that algebra, arithmetic and calculus I learnt in school I am now applying to a range of real-life scenarios:
- Savings and investments
- Paying credit cards, my mortgage and other bills
- Calculating R.O.I. and conversion for my book sales and figuring out the best investment and marketing models
- A range of business applications, such as demographic analysis of book sales and platform building
- Exchange rates and money transfer
Bottom line: numeracy really matters!
The UK is facing a numeracy crisis
GCSE mathematics scores have been disappointing for a number of years, and 2018 was no exception.
GCSE’s in the UK used to be graded from a bottom grade of a ‘U’ to a top grade of an ‘A*’. This year, however, the system has changed so that the top grade a student can get is a ‘9’ and the bottom grade is a U. A grade 9 is slightly higher than the previous A*. The following table tries to clarify the comparison:
Despite this ‘new and improved’ system, however, the percentage of students gaining at least one level 4 (equivalent to a grade C) has fallen slightly, and only 3.5% of students gained the top grade ‘9’ in mathematics.
When looking at world stats we can compare the UK GCSE grades with global IGCSE results (the international equivalent of the GCSE). The findings are revealing:
- In June 2017, 20.8% of all students globally taking the CIE International Mathematics examinations achieved a grade A*. An even higher proportion (21.5%) achieved an A* in Additional Mathematics
- The June 2018 statistics for Edexcel are already out and they are revealing: 3.5% of all students globally achieved a level 9 in mathematics. 10.8% achieved a level 8.
It’s rather telling that 3.5% of students sitting the UK GCSE, and 3.5% of students globally taking the IGCSE (Edexcel) achieved a grade 9 in mathematics.
This could lead us to two very broad conclusions:
- Either the new 9-1 maths exams are really difficult, or
- Mathematical competency globally is pretty weak
PISA data tells us something else:
The top 5 countries for mathematics are all in Asia, with developing countries like China and Vietnam scoring way higher than the United Kingdom.
This is a cause for concern.
Why numeracy matters
According to a research summary produced by the Institute of Education, University of London, numeracy skills affect adults in a wide-variety of ways:
- Men with poor numeracy and literacy were more-likely to be unemployed, less-likely to get promoted if employed and were deemed more at-risk of suffering from depression
- Women with poor numeracy and literacy were less likely to own their own home, more likely to have low self-esteem and even more likely to report poor physical health in the last 12 months
- Low numeracy seems to have a greater effect on women than it does on men
- Poor numeracy is more strongly related to lack of paid employment than poor literacy
How can teachers increase numeracy?
There are a number of strategies that we can implement.
Numeracy technique #1: Graphs and Tables
Using a variety of fabrics in a textiles class? Comparing high-value paintings with the genre of art on display? Comparing urbanization with habitat destruction?
Get your students to quantify everything! This is so easy to do, but few schools encourage it properly.
With just a simple piece of graph paper, students can analyse a variety of situations numerically. Make sure they calculate gradients too, and perhaps a standard deviation or two won’t go amiss!
When children realise the truth that maths is everywhere, they then see the purpose of maths. Seeing the purpose, they tend to enjoy maths more and work harder at it.
Numeracy technique #2: Use tutor time for arithmetical skills
The time that students spend with their form tutor/homeroom teacher can be golden time for developing numeracy.
Online programs like Ten QQ and MyMaths allow students to interface with technology and quickly learn numerical manipulation.
With Ten QQ you simply show questions on the whiteboard with a time limit to complete each one. This can be easily and quickly peer-assessed at the end. It literally takes only ten minutes but can be very valuable for building up mathematical confidence, and for identifying weaknesses.
If your school lacks the technological means to do this then simply print out some quick worksheets for your students to complete. Here are some good sites to find free resources:
Numeracy technique #3: Teach mathematical language when you teach your subject
Use a wide variety of terms and explain them, when they come up in your subject. Think of ways that they could be taught in your curriculum area. Examples include:
- ‘Gradient’ and ‘Slope’
- A ‘Scatter Graph’ in Mathematics is the same as a ‘Line Graph’ in Science
- Highlight the similarities and differences in mathematical vocabulary between departments and subjects
Numeracy Technique #4: Use Mathematical Tools in a Subject-Specific Context
Consider the following:
- Venn Diagrams and Carroll Diagrams can be used in almost any subject
- Timelines can be used to highlight chronology and even to track progress in a subject
- Probabilities, time calculations and percentages come up everywhere. Make an effort to spend time on these calculations and show pupils how to do them properly.
- Find out what the maths department is teaching, and when they are teaching it! Try to link the school’s maths curriculum to your own, so that you are reinforcing the right concepts at the right time.
Numeracy Technique #5: Recognise that many students may have bad experiences of learning mathematics
Try your best to enjoy teaching numeracy, and this sense of enjoyment will rub of on your students.
Consider the following:
- Adapt learning games such as ‘Splat’, ‘Corners’ and ‘Bingo’ to help kids solve maths problems (see this article here for more info)
- Be patient and take time to explain concepts. Give learners time to formulate their answers
- Encourage your students to see the world through ‘maths eyes’, and encourage them to quantify aspects of your subject. A frequency analysis of adjectives in a short story, or even a geometrical exploration of the map of Wales – the opportunities for seeing the world from a mathematical perspective are endless. The website http://www.haveyougotmathseyes.com/ is a great place to start when looking for ideas.
Further Reading (click on the book image to take you to the Amazon sales page)
Jennifer Wathall is probably the world’s premier guru when it comes to teaching your kids how to have ‘Maths Eyes’. This book should be a staple for all teachers, everywhere, in my humble opinion.
With practical strategies that any teacher can use, ‘Teaching Numeracy’ is a very ‘hands-on’ book that any teacher will find helpful.
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