Making maths meaningful

By Greg Whitby, 22 August 2018


Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

Many people will tell you their worst subject at school was maths. Maths hasn’t had a reputation for being one of the popular subjects, which might go part of the way to explaining the diminishing numbers of students taking advanced levels of maths in secondary school. How parents and teachers feel and talk about maths can influence students’ attitudes. Maths is so much more than just addition, subtraction, multiplication and division: it is about teaching young people how to reason, problem-solve and persist.

According to experts, parents can lay the foundation for numeracy at home by encouraging young children to notice the maths around them. The typical thing for parents to do is to teach young children to count. However, it’s also important that children are able to link the numbers with objects. For example, this is what 3 spoons and 5 apples look like. Another way is to ask children to look for numbers when they are out and above. ‘Can you see the number 10 anywhere?’ ‘What number is on that letter box?’

These simple things can help children recognise number patterns and differences. Richard Feynman, a famous 20th century physicist and mathematician, explained that his curiosity for maths began when his father would take him on walks around the neighbourhood to identify the different patterns he could see in tiles and fences. That’s the point: maths needs to be applied to the real-world and it needs to be understood not just rote-learned.

In my day, teachers taught the steps and rubber-stamped the right answer. Today, however teachers want to see how students are working out problems by asking them to explain their thinking. This is because there can be multiple solutions to the one problem. That’s what makes maths interesting. We know that coaching clinics focus on helping students to calculate. Yet in an era where computers can do the calculations for us, the real skill is being able to teach students to think through and persevere with problems before being assisted.

If you think your child is struggling in maths, don’t use your own maths education as a guide. Have a chat to their teacher and ask them to explain what they are learning in class. The world has changed, so too our attitudes to maths. We want all learners to see themselves as mathematicians!

Greg Whitby

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta



Greg Whitby is the Executive Director of Schools - Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta
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