'Pupils should learn maths through using it'

By Judith Burns
Education reporter, BBC News

image captionMaths "could be exciting and powerful if taught differently"

Teachers should allow pupils to learn maths by using it rather than focusing on abstract concepts, says an expert.

Professor Dave Pratt of the Institute of Education argues innovative teaching techniques and technology could help more pupils engage with the subject.

Government figures show almost half the working adults in England have only primary school maths skills.

Mike Ellicock of National Numeracy welcomed the suggestion as a way to help pupils become numerate adults.

One reason why children struggle with maths is that the subject is taught backwards, Professor Pratt will argue in a lecture to the Institute of Education on Wednesday.

"For instance, with a language you learn it by speaking it, but with maths you learn about it first and then use it later," Professor Pratt will say.

"The problem with maths is that it is taught in way that is disconnected from the children.

"They don't see how it is relevant to their lives. It is presented only through abstract concepts, rather than in terms of experiences."

'Power of maths'

Professor Pratt advocates greater use of the technology-based methods he has developed to enable students to learn maths as they use it.

For example, a project to design a computer animation could help pupils see the relevance of algebraic calculations, he said.

He suggested that older pupils might be asked to approach questions with moral dimensions through mathematics.

For example, decisions on where to build a village bypass or how to advise someone on medical treatment have a mathematical element - but ethical considerations and social costs that are harder to quantify also play a part.

"I want children to see the power of maths - but also to understand its limitations," he said.

He added that the approach was not the same as old-fashioned mathematical "problems" which were often contrived and irrelevant to children's real life experiences.

Peter Lacey from the Association of Teachers of Mathematics agreed that too many maths lessons were defined by where they should end rather than where they started.

"Sometimes it is more effective to look at where the learner is starting from and then to take an experimenting, stimulating approach to engage the child," said Mr Lacey.

"We need to focus on the learning of maths and focus our teaching round that."

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