Monday, 26 January 2015

Finding our Maths Hook

Mathematics is a subject that fascinates me; sadly it is not one that I have a great aptitude for.  If I could go back in time, one of the things I would change would be to not be put off by assuming there was something I didn't get... that the teacher was asking for something more, something I didn't understand beyond the simple sum she was quizzing me on... that the myth that mathematics is something complicated for whizzkids only and is boring had not been dumped on me before I was even given a chance to grasp the basics.  So often, learning mathematics felt like being tested on something I didn't know yet rather than being introduced to something new and interesting.

I did not want that to happen to my kids.

Maths is the language of the universe.  That statement alone grabbed the older ones in the early years.  Maths helps us work out the littlest and the biggest questions - not just what two add two makes.  We created a box to contain the "Secrets of the Universe", always spoken like it is an introduction to a 60s sci fi TV show... "Seeecrets ooooof theeee Uuuuuniveeeerse!"  Once a week, the printer mysteriously printed out another secret just for us...  basic fractions to colour in, for example, or introducing multiplication.  (We used the Box of Secrets printouts generously posted by Mark Warner on Teaching Ideas to decorate the box.)

It was going so well... the children would excitedly show and tell a visitor the new secret, and about the box, and how they were learning the language to unravel the "Seeecrets ooooof theeee Uuuuuniveeeerse!"  And the visitor would reply...
"Oh that's nice dear.  I've always been rubbish at maths. I can't add two and two together!"
"Oh I never liked maths when I was at school.
"That's a nice way of doing maths.  Because maths is usually really boring."

I understand the visitors were not trying to bring it down at all.  They were being honest and their experiences mirror that of many.  Friends at social groups who are educated in schools were saying similar things. "Maths is boring."  But when my children constantly heard people they loved, liked and admired saying these things, they began to emulate them. 

And now I am finding it a battle to keep it upbeat and new and exciting for them.  Especially when learning the basics, as there is no getting away from having to revise the same problems.

Once they are getting the hang of a times table or a new concept, we can move on to a trail hunt which the kids have all thankfully kept enthusiasm for. I try to encourage them during the more repetitive sessions by reminding them that we have to put that bit of work in to learn the basics so we can unlock the language.

My oldest two have more of a liking for art, history and English, especially creative writing and literature.  It suddenly occurred to me...

...Why not approach it from this angle?

And so we have been learning about famous mathematicians from history.  It seems to help to see that a mathematician's life is not about sitting doing repetitive long division from a textbook all day, every day.  So far we have looked at Archimedes (check out the picture book Mr Archimedes Bath by Pamela Allen), Isaac Newton and Ada Lovelace.   We found line drawings of each which the children coloured in.  Then I printed off some key words for them to write their own account of the mathematician's life and work after learning about them.  This was very successful.  I was especially asked by one of the kids if they could create a non-fiction book about one mathematician we studied.

As for the sessions when they are practicing their sums and problems, I never thought I would see the day of letting them use edible counters as "encouragement".  We use sultanas instead of sweets, which makes me a little bit better about the bribery method.  And it does mean that even the little tot takes it upon herself to sit at the table with the older ones with her very own pot of sultanas as she counts them out loud.


  1. I´m a spanish teacher, only wanted to say thanks for your blog. It gave me ideas to work with the Box of secrets tool ;)

  2. Hi Berni, I'm so glad you dropped by - welcome! The Box of Secrets is still going strong here, and we are enjoying a new list of STEM notables this year too (Pythagoras, Edward Jenner, Mary Anning and Florence Nightingale). Please do let us know how your Box of Secrets goes down - I'm interested to find out how you make it work for language study too :)