We all know how useful a good handle on maths is in life, whether to help tot up the supermarket bill or work out a simple percentage. So why do so many children fall out of love with maths – and how can we parents teach them to love it? We quizzed Rachel Dunsmore, founder of ARC Education, to find out...
Tell us a bit about yourself and ARC Maths
I never thought I would be a teacher, but I’d had some time out to have a family, and I was beginning to wonder what to do with the rest of my life. I felt too out-of-touch to go back to my previous career and, given that I love maths and I enjoy being around teenagers, teaching was an obvious choice. Also, the holidays help! Especially with a family. On a good day, I’m not sure there is a better job.
I have now left the classroom to create a maths app – Arc Maths App – which we launched last year. I’ve had a lot of experience of teaching with technology and knew there was a gap in the market for a sophisticated user-friendly app to help with secondary/GCSE maths.
What was your motivation behind creating the app? How is it used by pupils and in schools?
iPads are a fantastic addition to a classroom, but the maths app that I really wanted didn’t exist. What Arc Maths now does is help pupils stay on top of all the core skills and knowledge that they have previously been taught. It is about stopping them forgetting and creating strong foundations.
We’ve applied some well-researched techniques from cognitive science – retrieval practice, interleaving, spaced practice – but what children see is just 12 questions a day, which they answer by writing on the screen. There is some very clever technology that can read maths expressions.
In the background, Arc Maths is remembering what they got right, what they got wrong and when they last practised that topic, and this then controls which questions the child sees. All the time we are trying to maximise the transfer to long-term memory for each individual child.
Why is there such a perception of maths as being a ‘hard’ subject? Is it really that difficult?
Most pupils leave primary school brimming with maths enthusiasm, but their confidence can wane during those first few years at secondary. Once confidence goes, there is an impact on working memory and it can trigger a downward spiral towards ‘maths anxiety’, something that affects about 1 in 10 children and more commonly girls. I think perception of maths being ‘hard’ is more closely linked with people’s emotional response to it rather than their attainment level.
In reality, maths is as hard as you want to make it, but if the foundations are secure and the scaffolding is right, then children will succeed. It is unhelpful that there is so much focus on getting the right answer – there is much more to the subject than that.
Can anybody do maths if they’re taught the right way?
Maths is a subject that builds on previous learning, so the most important thing is that children have a firm grasp of the basics. Just revising for the end-of-year exams doesn’t work because children need ongoing recall of core skills. If those small bits of knowledge are missing, new topics can seem overwhelming – finding the area of a circle will seem much harder if you can’t remember the difference between radius and diameter; converting between units is significantly more challenging if you can’t recall how to multiply and divide by powers of 10. That is why I made Arc Maths App – to fill the gaps so that there is nothing to hold children back.
Yes – everyone can do maths. It is, honestly, the most wonderful subject. It just needs to be pitched at the right level. A great teacher certainly helps – when a teacher really loves their subject, it is infectious.
I hated maths at school – how can I encourage my child to love it, and help them with it when I can’t remember how to do the basics myself?
Not knowing how to help can be a problem for parents. Often they want to but don’t feel able. In fact, there is a lot that parents can do regardless of their own maths ability:
My child is completely useless at maths and wants to give up – how can I make them realise how useful it is for life and encourage them to keep going?
No child is ‘not good at maths’; it is a question of confidence and maintaining that confidence is the key. In my experience, most children are receptive to continuing with maths beyond GCSE if they have sufficient confidence that they will cope at A-level. Helping them to feel good about maths is probably more effective than telling them why they should do it, even if you do have a child who listens to you.
What’s the one secret to nailing times tables or acing arithmetic? What should we be doing at home?
You need to mix them up. Just going through the 6 times table in order is not as effective as jumping around. And you need to include division as well. It is not enough to know that 4 times 7 is 28; you also need to know that 28 divided by 7 is 4. For primary age, TT Rock Stars is good. The first and second question on Arc Maths App is always times table – even when you know them you need to keep practising.
Why is maths so important for so many different degrees and subjects?
Oh gosh! That’s a big question. Maths is a language that we use to represent the world around us and so it has applications everywhere. There are the obvious degrees that require maths – engineering, computer science, economics, maths, sciences – but most forms of further study will require maths in terms of data analysis, percentages and graphs. And of course, we all need to be able to understand risk and growth rates now!
If you could give parents one final piece of advice when it comes to maths, what would it be?
This article was originally published by Talk Education on 2nd June 2021
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