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The effects of academic labelling

Aren't I a bit different?
Aren't I a bit different?
Another anecdote from one of my older pupils similar to last week's.

She explained how it felt to be firstly lost in maths - her mum had remarked how her daughter looked as if she had been falling behind and that the teachers initially ignored her concerns. Having twenty plus other pupils to look after, it's easily done - but the repercussions can run deep.

When 'action' was finally taken, it was to pull her aside during the day for 'special lessons' - for this girl, she admitted, this was the worst thing that could have happened: she felt she was being treated differently and pulled out of the group. Since that time, she said, her confidence in maths was shattered.

Today she's quietly competent but still nervous. We have worked with her for three years almost - her scars run deep and she is so looking forward to finishing with maths.

I meet many like her - she's on the further end of the spectrum than most but so many have anxieties that don't need to be there. Even  many parents admit to their maths fears (heard a couple this week mention it in passing).

It makes me wonder what is going on!

Why are we losing so many pupils' confidence?

Partly the answer lies in classroom teaching: the economies of scale that a classroom teacher brings to the session is inevitably at the cost of individual quality. As a lecturer, I can admit the 'ego boost' that speaking in front of large groups can give...but it is an ego boost, it's not educationally effective: whether any one is paying attention is any one's guess. Put ourselves in the middle of a classroom and our focus goes in and out ... in and out ... what do I need to get done? Hmm, she's pretty over there....what's that outside?...Now, where was I...(And I'm a seasoned student and conference attendee). Quantity and quality are inversely related in learning.

Partly the answer lies in the national curriculum, which seems to be crumbling a bit. There cannot be one-size fits all. Teachers - especially at the lower levels - are highly conditioned to follow the curriculum and have to proceed regardless of whether some or any of the kids actually got the tasks - or whether the methods used actually make sense. We've swung from anti-phonics in the 60s to pro-phonics in the noughties; no grammar to rather esoteric explanations being dripped into the ears of our youngsters - reminiscent of murder in Hamlet? Who cares what a split vowel digraph is at the age of 10? Read the kids great literature instead!

Learning is so individualistic. That's why I work generally one-to-one. Group sessions have their place - especially when the group works together to solve problems. Teachers know that they work better with groups that are evenly matched. Unfortunately, our schools are wedded to the notion that kids of a similar age should show similar abilities. Who came up with that one? My pupil could have learned maths at her own pace rising through the levels with pupils of different ages: but no, at ten she was supposed to know x, y, and z - and so with a sense of failure she was moved on.

Naturally, my remedy would require a scholarly revolution: I have the plans all set out by the way! Any entrepreneurs keen to know more - I'll share them with you.

Anyway, Moira noticed that our Charlie was getting a little wound up about his 'formal maths' I was teaching we pulled back. A few weeks later, he's talking curiously about numbers again. He's numerically competent and I was keen to push a bit - nope, he wasn't ready. So letting him free wheel (remember, we're home schooling) has done him the world of good. And I've had to adapt and hold my conditioned tongue. His curiosity will pull him back and I can work on practical maths with him - stuff that makes sense.

Most of formal maths learning can only come with confidence. Sure it can be forced - but at what cost? Get the kid through the exam and then leave him or her reeling for the rest of life. It's like our music lessons (or RE): our pupils emerge from school musically illiterate (the great majority cannot read music) and spiritually shallow. Most come out hating/fearing maths.

It doesn't have to be like this.

My advice if you've got a pupil who's getting wound up about maths is to first of all check your own fears and memories. Kids can feel them. Let them go. As capable adults, we can always learn afresh - pick up some books on mathematicians or the history of maths - approach it from a different angle before you turn to do some problem solving. Thatís all maths is about - solving problems, and hey, we adults have problems to solve all the time!

Article by Dr Alexander Moseley
Added Mon, 18 May 2015 09:04


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