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

Animation of numbers, people and maths equipment

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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.

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.