Let's take maths back to basics by Hilary Nunns @HilaryNunns

Poor levels of basic numeracy skills I am no longer shocked by the poor levels of basic skills displayed by students arriving in FE.  It is easy for us in the 16+ environment to blame secondary schools but I can see that the National Numeracy Strategy fails to support teachers who are trying to address the very real differentiation needs of those with potential Dyscalculia.  By the time they get to college it’s a hard emotional nut to crack, let alone that “by the GCSE year it’s too late“.

Last term I was asked to teach Functional Maths to young people who had not yet taken their Entry 3 maths qualifications.  The student profile was a group of 17 – 19 year olds on their second year at college studying IT and Computing, Level 2.  Two students had disabilities and I had the benefit of an LSA plus a British Sign Language interpreter.


Using functional skills to contextualise maths

Many of these young people had no maths qualifications whatsoever, had failed GCSE (plus subsequent re-sits) but were required by the college to take this Functional Skills qualification before the end of their course.  I hated maths myself when I was at school, until I dropped the applied theory and learned a form of commercial maths at which I was highly successful.  Functional skills lends itself perfectly to this and I decided that it would be a good opportunity for me (and for the students) to contextualise the maths and break the emotional barriers.

When I first met my group it was quickly evident that one of the students was ready for a Level 2 qualification (equivalent to GCSE) and others were as low as Entry 2.   In the main, the students did not know when to divide and when to multiply.


Helping them to unlearn a fear of maths

The challenge was to keep them engaged and learning for 3 hours every Monday morning for six weeks, helping them to unlearn their fear and hatred of maths.  Pulling on all my pre-emptive classroom management skills I organised myself with a bag full of activities such as cubes, dice, games that I downloaded from BBC Skillswise, lots of little mind-blowing miniclips from YouTube, and online interactive games to help to motivate and connect them with maths.  And of course, the dreaded mock assessment papers, which we practiced in small steps.

It was quickly evident that at least 3 of the students may well have been on a Dyscalculia spectrum, none more so than “D” who snarled at me at every opportunity.  She didn’t meet my eye, refused to join in any activities and disrupted other students.  Her ‘problem’ (apparently) was not with maths, but with me, the maths teacher.  I just refused to believe her and, ignoring her attention-seeking behaviour, I continued to involve the other students with puzzles and conundrums relating to everyday maths.


Hands-on learning helped understanding

A feature of Entry and Level 1 Functional Maths is the expectation of students to understand area, perimeter and volume.  For example, laying carpet tiles, turf onto a football pitch, decking, bathroom tiles.  Everyone in my class told me they couldn’t do it.  The problem?  Whether to divide or to multiply.  The assessments ask for demonstration of this ability in a number of ways.  The theory is simple, but nothing beats a bit of hands-on so I brought in tiles, envelopes, post-it notes, small boxes, cubes and tape measures, and set them to measuring these shapes in singles and learning how and when to multiply for area, perimeter and volume.  It took some hours but we got there in the end.

“D” eventually participated in this and all subsequent activities, and although I never once received a smile from her I did overhear her telling someone that I was ‘alright’.  She had a maths phobia, brought on by years of failure at this subject.  A little bit of success brings about a huge leap in trust and she left college with her first maths qualification at the grand age of 19.

So let’s REALLY get back to basics.  That doesn’t just mean following the curriculum to the ‘T’, it means using Smarties when it’s needed (as Jodie mentioned in her post) and bringing some meaning to it all.  It’s never too late.