Experts highlight key ways that schools can improve the way maths is taught

Primary maths teachers should use a variety of classroom activities to help improve children’s understanding of the subject, a new study has recommended.

Education experts from Loughborough and Ulster universities have reviewed 80 European and North American intervention studies – studies which compare new teaching approaches with existing practices – to find new ways of improving learning standards in the UK.

The alternative approaches focussed on children aged between four and 11-years-old, with the goal of boosting youngsters’ knowledge of basic number skills, problem-solving as well as other areas.

  • It is estimated that 15-17 million adults in the UK have poor numeracy skills
  • Around 5% of the UK population meet the diagnostic criteria for dyscalculia
  • More than a fifth of 11-year-olds leave primary school without reaching the mathematical level expected

The report says: “Learning mathematics in the primary school years to a large extent determines children’s later success in mathematics and as well as other areas such as reading.

“Additionally, there are many negative outcomes associated with low numeracy, such as significantly higher risk of unemployment, lower wages, mental health problems, physical illness, arrest and incarceration.

“Moreover, the societal cost of low numeracy is estimated to include billions of pounds of lost revenue in taxes and welfare provision.

“Focusing mathematics education research on children within mainstream classrooms is therefore necessary to provide a greater understanding of how to increase mathematical learning across the board.”

The review, Interventions to improve mathematical achievement in primary school-aged children, included data from 14,198, primary pupils, and aimed to bring together evidence about what types of classroom-based interventions that have been assessed through studies with primary school-aged children.

The studies identified in the review suggested that there are a number of approaches that have the potential to promote mathematical learning in mainstream primary classrooms.

The team highlighted seven key points for teachers but urged that each intervention was considered in context alongside their current practices as some might not be as effective in particular environments.

They were:

  • Focusing on key topic areas in mathematics such as conceptual understanding, magnitudes and basic number skills
  • Ensuring that children have a fluent grasp of mathematical facts
  • Ensuring that children have a wide bank of strategies to complete mathematical problems and that they know when to best apply them
  • The appropriate use of objects as learning aids
  • Providing effective and timely feedback
  • Using technology that has been developed with clear understanding of how children learn
  • Varying how mathematical content is delivered in the classroom, such as through physical activity or group work

Dr Camilla Gilmore, Reader in Mathematical Cognition, at Loughborough University’s Mathematics Education Centre, said: “Research studies have identified a number of ways in which teachers can support primary school children’s mathematics development and this report brings together this evidence in one place.

“Our review identified that approaches such as focusing on conceptual understanding, magnitudes and basic number skills and helping children to use different strategies to solve problems, can be beneficial.

“However, we also found that in many areas there is a lack of rigorous evidence that teachers can draw upon and it is difficult to compare the effectiveness of different approaches to supporting children’s learning. Future research should seek to fill these gaps.”

Finally, the researchers made a number of recommendations for policymakers:

  • The development of guidance on interventions should be made with caution as the majority of the evidence that we identified was of low quality
  • Support teachers through training on evidence-based education so that they can evaluate studies that may help inform their practice
  • Develop a Core Outcome Set (an agreed set of appropriate outcome measures) to aid comparison across studies

Lead researcher, Dr Victoria Simms, Reader in Developmental Psychology and Research Director of the School of Psychology at Ulster University, said: “We hear a lot about the importance of literacy and the numerous interventions available to teachers to support learning in reading and comprehension.

“Maths is just as important for children’s future educational success, but in comparison to reading we simply do not have as much evidence or resources to help children achieve in mathematics.

“This report and web resource, which is free to access, highlights a range of evidence-based classroom interventions teachers can use to support their pupils with maths.

“We know from lots of research that early success in maths encourages young people to reach their potential across the STEM subjects on offer to them.

“It’s really important that we support teachers by providing resources and training to help them improve children’s outcomes.”

The study was also carried out in partnership with Queen’s University Belfast and University College Dublin.


Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 19/73

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