Rigid teaching kills off ‘Stone Age’ maths skills

Children’s “intuitive” feel for maths – a skill that once helped Stone Age hunter-gatherers to find food – is undermined by teaching that encourages rigid application of set techniques, the head of maths at an independent school has claimed.

Everyone is born with a genetic predisposition to work with concepts of quantity, Stuart Welsh told a Holyrood Events conference on literacy and numeracy in Edinburgh.

‘Killing off’ maths ability

“It’s a survival instinct that we developed because of evolution and prehistoric needs, whether it was looking at the quantity of wild boar and knowing straight away that one is a meal and 10 is a stampede, or judging quickly that a bush is full of berries. Counting isn’t necessarily required, but an understanding of quantity is,” he said after the event.

Everyone has this innate ability, he added, “but, more or less, we kill it off in school”.

An over-reliance on strict techniques, such as times tables and chimney sums, obscured what children already knew, explained the High School of Glasgow teacher. Many children did not respond well to such techniques, he said, and switched off from maths, sometimes in the early stages of primary school.

Calculators used as ‘security blankets’

“As maths goes on and on, it really does seem to be a never-ending stream of procedures that need to be memorised and practised,” he said. “Somewhere along the line the intuition is completely eroded and they just become almost slaves to the written method.” He added: “Reliance on a calculator is one of the most dangerous things I see – [pupils] clutch it like a security blanket.”

Fostering qualities such as determination, creativity, character, and resilience was more important than the ability to “rattle through a quadratic equation”, he insisted.

Mr Welsh’s comments come after Jo Boaler, a maths professor at Stanford University in California, told TES that maths teaching in many schools was “narrow and impoverished” (Insight, 11 December).

It was a miscomprehension, she said, to think that maths was a subject where the answers were always either right or wrong, and pupils needed to shake off their fear of making mistakes.


This is an edited version of an article in the 12 February edition of TESS. Subscribers can view the full version of this story here. Read the full coverage in this week’s TESS magazine, available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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