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3 March 2021
By Jason Horne

How Can Schools Help Parents with their Maths?

The recent increase in social media posts has inspired me to write my first blog. More and more parents are finding the challenges of home learning increasingly difficult and maths seems to stand out as a recurring area of difficulty. So, what can we as educational professionals do to support parents? This blog will explore parents’ fear of maths, their anxieties about their understanding of current maths teaching strategies and then consider how we can support them to gain confidence.

An American study found that “parents’ maths anxiety is negatively associated with children’s maths achievement in early elementary school. ” [1] I wanted to explore if adults have high levels of maths anxiety and if this affects them when working with their children on Maths at home? I posed the question on Facebook of ‘What are you fearful of in maths and why?’ The response to this question was huge which really highlighted the level of continuing maths anxiety. I will revisit this question, analysing the key areas of maths which bring fear and how to support parents to overcome this.

From the Facebook question, I found that all the maths anxiety being experienced was deep routed and started at school. From school many of us believe that maths is confusing and that we are not “good at maths”. I have a fear over mental maths. This developed at school where I was not quick. I am still anxious when I need to quickly add or subtract but have recently learnt strategies, due to my job, by thinking about how I would want children to tackle each problem. I explored the work of Jo Boaler on mathematical mindsets [2] in which we think about how excited children are about maths. I can see this excitement in my three-year-old son. He looks for patterns in nature, spots numbers on houses and rearranges sets of objects to finds out how many there are. He, like all children, thinks about maths with curiosity and wonder.

When looking deeper at the answers given on Facebook, people feared maths when trying to follow procedures or having to remember facts. Fortunately, we now teach maths so that children gain a deep understanding of its structure. Mathematical generalisations are discovered by pupils and then applied to future questions. I remember generalisations were just told to me and so I struggled to understand the importance of them. My passion in maths teaching is to guarantee that pupil’s excitement and curiosity continues to grow.

My second point is the notion that maths has changed. The underlying principles of maths have not changed but maths is now not taught in the way that most of us had learnt it. I do not think this is a bad thing. Maths is taught so that children have a deep understanding of the concepts being studied. The National Curriculum in England highlights that mathematics is an interconnected subject in which pupils need to be able to move fluently between mathematical ideas [3]. Pupils should understand why they have learnt a concept and how they are able to link this back to previous content they have learnt.

Supporting Parents with Home Learning

Teachers have had to become very proficient at online teaching. This skill could be used in supporting parents with maths anxiety. Before starting a concept, a brief video lesson could be given to parents about the ways in which their child will be taught and more importantly why it is being taught that way. When parents were at school, maths was told to them and never explained. I think parents would be thankful to understand the reason why their children are being taught in a particular way.

From the Facebook question here are the common themes that people expressed they were fearful of…

  • Long division
  • Fractions
  • Percentages
  • Negative numbers
  • Algebra
  • Mental Maths/ times tables

I think the fear in these topics is that they are seen in isolation. They are rarely connected to previous concepts that we have a strong understanding of. If as an adult, we were able to see the progression in Maths now we would also see how this give us a deeper understanding. We might be able to revisit a concept using this new required link. This happened to me when looking at ratio- I never fully understood this concept until I was shown the representation of bar modelling. This highlighted the structure of ratio and allowed me to use my knowledge of multiplication and division to support me.

Graham Fletcher has created progression videos [4] which show the steps that pupils will take in their maths learning. Sharing these with parents, will allow them to see the step that their child is currently using, what they have learnt previously and what they will learn in the future. Parents would see that children will eventually use the more formal methods and why using a different representation first is a beneficial step in greater understanding.

Finally, I think it is important for parents to understand that mental maths and times tables is more than memorisation and that strategies can be used to support this.

Number Sense Maths [5] teaches 12 calculation strategies. Learning and applying these strategies gives deep understanding of number and relationships. Children "use what they know to work out what they don't know" allowing them to gain a knowledge of addition and subtractions facts which can be applied to different scenarios. On reflection, if I knew these strategies as a child, I would have felt more confident in my mental calculations.

I have similar thought about Big Maths and the structure used for teaching multiplication [6]. Understanding the structure of multiplication and the relationship in facts allows children to remember their times tables in a manageable 36 facts. ‘Coin Multiplication’ is another helpful strategy in which pupils find the 1st, 2nd, 5th, 10th, 20th, 50th, and 100th multiples of a number by multiplying by 10, halving and doubling. Using this bank of found numbers eases the working memory of children when tacking difficult division and multiplication questions.

To conclude we can find a positive from home learning. Parents have seen the latest strategies that we use as teachers, and by understanding progression in maths we can see how pupils have a deeper understanding of concepts. Pre teaching videos will create parental engagement (something that I know I struggled with as a Maths subject leader.) Highlighting strategies shown in Number Sense Maths and Big Maths will grow confidence and fluency in number facts.

I hope that if I ask this current generation in 20 years’ time about what they are fearful of in Maths there would be no responses.