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Comment: Kids Don’t Count

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By Tim MajorEditor of Child Education PLUS

Channel 4’s Dispatches series deals with the difficulties that children and teachers have with basic numeracy, and the programme seems to have caused some controversy already.

The featured children of Barton Hill Primary School in Bristol initially showed a poor grasp of maths fundamentals such as calculations involving fractions. Even some of the teachers confessed that they had disliked maths when they were at school, and this childhood aversion seemed to persist in their own taught lessons.

Enter Richard Dunne, an author and consultant who specialises in making basic maths calculations more tangible. Using paper cups to represent units, Richard asks children to model addition, subtraction, multiplication and division calculations (or ‘maths stories’) by moving cups from one table to another. He’s an amiable tutor, and his methods are accompanied by a range of gestures to aid children’s understanding (for example, multiplication is represented by a kiss, as in: ‘I love what you do so much I am going to repeat it’).

The main controversy surrounding Channel 4’s programme relates to a maths test that the producers asked a selection of teachers to sit, featuring questions of a level suitable for an 11-year-old. The story that the media picked up even before the documentary was broadcast revolved around the fact that on average, the teachers answered just 45 per cent of the questions correctly. The Times reported that only 20 per cent of the teachers correctly calculated that 4 + 2 x 5 is 14, and that a third of the teachers solved the calculation 1.4 divided by 0.1.

What struck me when watching the programme is that the media condemnation seems hypocritical. Yes, failing to teach children basic numeracy at primary school can have huge repercussions – many children who become disillusioned at an early age will never fully engage with maths at secondary school. But, I’m willing to bet that many of the complaining pundits wouldn’t have performed well in a similar maths test. (You can try the test for yourself on the Channel 4 website.) Many British adults appear to feel that it’s acceptable to throw up their hands at the first sign of a fraction calculation.

In the Channel 4 documentary, Richard Dunne stated that it was unacceptable for teachers to struggle with maths fundamentals if they are to successfully teach and inspire children. However, his sympathies seemed to be with the teachers; the breadth of skills that primary teachers need is daunting.

Another aspect that the programme touched on were Key Stage 2 SATs. The Barton Hill teachers were forced to abandon Richard Dunne’s new style of maths teaching in order to prepare for the exams, and both Richard and the documentary voiceover were damning about the need to ‘teach to the test’. Will Richard Dunne turn out to be the Jamie Oliver of maths, and will this documentary contribute to the growing call to abandon KS2 tests?

You can view the first part of Dispatches: Kids Don’t Count on the Channel 4 website, and the second part will be screened on Monday 22 February at 8pm.

Do you have any tips for great maths lessons that inspire children? How did you score in the Channel 4 maths test? Do you think that the documentary was a fair reflection on maths teaching in primary schools?

Join the debate on the Scholastic forum.

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