|When mathematical concepts are introduced early and in a developmentally appropriate way, most children love and can succeed at maths explains our Head of Training Louise Livingston as she responds to the Prime Minister’s plan in our latest blog.
The recent announcement that all young people in the UK will be required to study some form of maths until age 18 received a mixed response from educators, students and parents around the country and perhaps a few exclamations of “thank goodness that didn’t happen in my time”.
The “more more more maths” approach – we’ll keep teaching until they “get it” could be missing the point. If children haven’t gained basic numeracy in the early years, at primary school or secondary school, will they really be motivated and successful when required to study Maths beyond age 16? Research shows that learning is most successful when young people are happy and when motivation is high.
Both the French mathematician Pascal and Maria Montessori observed that the human mind is mathematical in the way that it learns from experience, so it seems logical that maths should not be as challenging as it seems to be to so many. The magic of maths should be experienced long before children reach secondary school.
Like every aspect of education, maths is much more successfully learnt when delivered in a way that appeals to children’s natural tendencies and interests. My many years of experience working with children and as a Montessori teacher trainer has shown me that when mathematical concepts are introduced early, in a developmentally appropriate way, most children love maths. Making maths relevant, engaging, and purposeful is also key.
Being able to use your mind to calculate, classify and make predictions is like “milk and honey” to a young mathematical mind in the process of building mental capacity. So rather than maths being a drudgery that many have to endure, it should be a delight. Not only is it helping children to build brain networks that can be utilised in other academic domains, such as learning to read and write, it is also enabling the many different paths that children may choose in the future from accountant to zoologist – or any, as yet unimagined, career.
A huge body of research suggests that early mathematical skills are good predictors of later mathematical ability, pointing to the benefits of starting early. But how can we start so early when abstract concepts are difficult for younger children to grasp?
One key aspect of a successful approach to maths in the early years is a focus on representing abstract concepts in concrete form, making them more accessible to children who have a natural propensity to explore with their senses during this stage of life.
For example, in the Montessori Children’s House (3-6 years), the decimal system is introduced with golden beads – units of beads are grouped together in bars of ten, which are in turn grouped in tens to represent a hundred and then a thousand. Children can see and feel the concrete difference between a unit, a ten, a hundred and a thousand – and this is done before they are shown how these quantities are represented in writing. Understanding the meaning of an abstract number is therefore built on a concrete understanding of what those numbers represent. Operations and the memorisation of number facts are done similarly – concrete representations are explored before linking to symbols and then we gradually withdraw the concrete materials from the child’s experiences, as they are ready, so that only the symbol is left – a symbol which now carries real meaning for them.
Later, in Montessori Elementary (6-12 years) similar approaches are used for learning about the squaring and cubing of numbers of quadratic equations and beyond.