Illustration showing different number, rulers and maths-related tools, and people sitting in and around them.

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Maths curriculum backed by cognitive science could ensure no child is left behind on the learning journey

School mathematics teaching is “stuck in the past” and we need to adopt curricula underpinned by cognitive science if we want more students to succeed, says the Director of a UK education network.

Headshot of Dr Colin Foster

Dr Colin Foster, Director of the Loughborough University Mathematics Education Network (LUMEN).

The message comes following the launch of a new, free curriculum by the Loughborough University Mathematics Education Network (LUMEN), which is informed by research into how our brains work and how people learn most effectively.

Dr Colin Foster, who spearheads LUMEN, is urging schools to adopt research-backed teaching materials, like the new curriculum, to ensure more students succeed in mathematics, especially those who have traditionally been disadvantaged in the learning of mathematics.

“There are disturbing inequalities in the learning of mathematics, with students from poorer backgrounds underachieving relative to their wealthier peers, as families can afford to buy their children out of difficulties by using private tutors”, says Dr Foster.

“There is also a huge gender participation gap in maths, at A-level and beyond, which is taken by far more boys than girls.

“In recent years, we've gained valuable insights into cognitive science. However, when it comes to mathematics teaching materials like textbooks, this understanding hasn't been fully applied.

“Cognitive science can be used to create better-quality teaching materials that improve the quality of explanations and how ideas are presented to students.

“This will enable more students to succeed and mitigate the impact for students who have traditionally been disadvantaged by gender, race, or financial background in the learning of mathematics.

What does a cognitive science-backed maths curriculum look like?

The LUMEN curriculum, aimed at Key Stage 3 learning (ages 11-14), incorporates cognitive science principles such as ‘desirable difficulties’.

A desirable difficulty is a learning challenge intentionally introduced into educational materials or activities to enhance learning outcomes.

It involves presenting tasks that may initially be more challenging or lead to increased errors, but ultimately result in deeper understanding and improved retention of knowledge.

In maths education, mixed exercises that require different problem-solving approaches – such as combining fractions, probability and equations – create desirable difficulty.

The LUMEN curriculum is also different in that it encourages educators not to split material into separate lessons, and rather prioritise responding and adapting to how students are learning.

It also reimagines the explanation of mathematical concepts. For example, the curriculum uses the ‘coherence principle’ from cognitive science, which means diagrams are used purposefully and extensively, but avoided where their drawbacks outweigh their benefits.

Of the curriculum, Dr Foster said: “School mathematics departments frequently spend most of their precious annual budget purchasing textbooks and other commercial resources that they often don’t like, and which are rarely informed by research.

“The LUMEN curriculum builds on the best-available research and is completely editable, giving teachers and schools absolute autonomy over how they use it, whether to supplement their existing materials or as a complete solution to their curriculum needs.

“Ultimately we hope that teachers and students will enjoy using these new teaching materials and that they will lead to better and more equitable learning for everyone.”

The resources are available on the dedicated LUMEN webpage.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 24/41

Additional quotes:

Director of the Centre for Mathematical Cognition at Loughborough University, Professor Matthew Inglis, said, “When Research England funded us to establish the Centre for Mathematical Cognition in 2019, our vision was to conduct world-leading research on the cognitive underpinnings of mathematics learning and to apply this research to classroom practice. The LUMEN curriculum is a perfect example of how basic research can be harnessed to improve educational practice.”

Professor Chris Linton, Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and Past President of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications, said, “Loughborough University’s Department of Mathematics Education has a worldwide reputation for the excellence and relevance of its research, built over decades. I am delighted to see this latest addition to our portfolio of activities designed to improve the quality of mathematics education in schools.”

Hon Group Captain Sally Bridgeland, Chair of the Centre for Mathematical Cognition’s Strategic Advisory Board, said, “With data and finance increasingly important ingredients in careers and life, developing maths confidence is vital for everyone to succeed in employment and for society as a whole to prosper. The LUMEN Curriculum resources aim to build students’ understanding of mathematics through creative tasks that support success and confidence at every stage.”

Notes for editors:

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme and named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2023 QS World University Rankings – the seventh year running.

Loughborough is ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2024, 10th in the Guardian University League Table 2024 and 10th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2024.

Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’, and in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 over 90% of its research was rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally-excellent’. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.