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Supporting Parents: The Maths Mum on why maths is still maths

6 Aug 2019

Why has maths got such a bad reputation?

“I just can’t help Thomas with his reading! Can you believe he’s only in Year 2 and it’s too difficult for me?!” – If you heard this at the school gate you would probably be quite shocked.  However, substitute the word ‘reading’ with ‘maths’ and this statement becomes much more acceptable. “Maths scares me”, “I was never good at maths”, “I’m not surprised she struggles with maths – she takes after me” – all examples of statements I’ve heard at the school gates. And my personal favourite – “Maths is so different now, why did they make it so complicated?”

Each of these statements will be familiar to any parent who either isn’t confident in their own maths ability or who may feel confident with their ability, but isn’t sure if they understand maths as it is today.

maths mum

How is maths different today?

The truth is that maths is exactly the same as it has always been but the way it is taught in schools today is different; different but not more complicated. Our generation learnt maths by rote. We were shown the method and told to practise it until we got it right. This is probably the reason that maths has got such as bad press with us because there wasn’t a backup plan if you didn’t get it. Today our children explore maths, they are provided many different ways to solve problems, and the wrong answer isn’t a big red X it is the basis for a discussion on other possibilities.

I liken it to a journey – you start at ‘Q’ (The Question) and you get to ‘A’ (The Answer). We were told that we had to go the quickest route and use a car. Our children get the option of using whatever route they want and on whatever mode of transport they prefer. They might choose to go the scenic route on a scooter. It might make the journey slightly longer and seem more complicated but ultimately, they get to the same destination and remember the experience.

The ‘new’ way maths is taught means that our children aren’t fearful of maths. In fact, ask most 5- and 6-year olds and they will tell you that maths is fun. They have a much better understanding of numbers and by Year 4 will be able to do things in their heads that you or I may need a smartphone to work out.

How can you help your child with maths?

To help our children successfully with maths we need confidence AND knowledge.

Confidence in our own ability: Maths hasn’t changed since we were at school – two plus two still equals four. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are still the main operations our children learn to master. We learnt them when we were at school and use them in our everyday lives. If you need a refresher or a boost in confidence, then try the National Numeracy Challenge. Confidence is the belief that you can help your child with their maths.

Knowledge takes a little bit more effort: Try not to force a method or way of learning on them - they might not be ready for it yet! A recent Cambridge University report into the origins of maths anxiety states “primary-aged children referred to instances where they had been confused by different teaching methods”. Open your mind to the alternatives, take time to understand the new methods and terminology, and be prepared to take the scenic route. If you need a starting point with this try the Helpful Hints and Tips on my website or visit the 'Advice for Families' page on National Numeracy's Family Maths Toolkit.

Can maths be fun?

In a word, yes! Maths isn’t about sitting down and doing sums together. The best way to experience it as a family is by weaving into everyday life. Maths is:

  • Playing Top Trumps
  • Spotting shapes and reading maps on a nature walk
  • Working out how many chores equate to the latest football strip
  • Gauging the right ratio of milk to eggs to get the pancakes just right
  • Calculating how many episodes of ‘Horrible Histories’ it will take to cover the journey to Granny’s house
  • Doing a survey in the playground and putting together a statistical argument to justify the statement that “the majority of 12 years olds have/haven’t* got a mobile phone”.

*delete as appropriate!

As parents, we are a child’s first and most enduring educator. We have the ability to support and nurture a positive attitude to maths at home.

We might not have all the answers, but we can have fun trying to work them out.

Karen McGuigan, aka The Maths Mum

The Maths Mum helps parents to help their children succeed in maths by providing insight and guidance on how maths is taught to children today. Check out the website for more details 

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Start improving your numeracy – register on the National Numeracy Challenge now!

National Numeracy has developed an online tool to help you improve your everyday maths and boost your confidence. This interactive website is free to use at home, at work or on the move. You can assess your current level of numeracy – completely anonymously – and then begin an online journey to getting the Essentials of Numeracy.