Comment »Posted on Monday 13 April 2009 at 3:42 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Mathematics

One of my friends is a maths teacher, and we’ve often discussed the many problems with maths education in this country. I’d never cut it as a teacher, but it’s still clear to me there is something wrong with the numeracy levels of the general UK population. New research shows that this could be because we’re teaching maths backwards.

The standard way of teaching maths starts out with a few examples before moving on to generalisations. In other words, you learn that 2 x 3 = 6 before moving on to a x b = ab. A study by psychologists Bethany Rittle-Johnson and Percival Mathews of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee has that this may not be the best way for children to learn.

“Teaching children the basic concept behind math problems was more useful than teaching children a procedure for solving the problems – these children gave better explanations and learned more,” Rittle-Johnson said.

“This adds to a growing body of research illustrating the importance of teaching children concepts as well as having them practice solving problems.”

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (which may or may not be this one as it seems to be six months old…) showed that children who were just taught how to solve problems without the concepts behind them found it difficult to adapt to new problems. Those who understood the concepts however were able to figure out the problems for themselves.

Will this research lead to a change in maths education? I hope so. Mathematician and Professor for the Public Understanding of Science Marcus Du Sautoy has likened current methods to teaching kids scales and arpeggios without actually letting them play music. A more conceptual view of mathematics would be a welcome move away from this.


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