I love maths. It is one of those subjects which, when I teach it, I often experience what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “Flow”. However, I also know that some people, both adults and children, do not enjoy maths and sometimes fear it. This is often down to the fact that they do not feel they are good at maths and when asked to describe what they think of as someone who is good at maths they state that it is someone who is good at calculations.
Now, I am the first to point out that calculation is not the be all and end all for maths. I love to engage students in mathematical investigations and developing their conceptual understanding of maths. I am an avid user of NRICH and I have provided professional development sessions on how to use this resource in teachers day-to-day practise. However, if not feeling good at doing calculations is a barrier that is stopping someone from enjoying maths then we should count ourselves lucky that this is often something that can be overcome with practise. I place a lot of value on mental maths. It is not a race to be the fastest but it is important that mental calculation strategies are efficient. This way the students can devote more of their cognitive processing power to the real maths on hand, i.e. working out how much to sell their friendship bracelets so that they are profitable or deciding on the reasonableness of an answer.
This focus has worked on a school wide basis. By focussing professional development around providing time for students to practise mental maths and sharing strategies to develop students mental maths skills I have helped a primary school turn around the progress students make in maths in a year as well improve the students attitude towards maths. This is one of things I would classify as low-budget but high-impact when thinking about school improvement and one that I am surprised to see more schools do not take advantage of.
Developing students mental maths skills is a multi-faceted approach. I use a concrete/pictorial/abstract approach when teaching mental maths skills and I set aside 15 minutes of school each day to work on the students mental maths skills. This is often done using number fans or whiteboards and playing games as a class. The objectives we work towards are clear and broken up into small chunks which are developed sequentially to build upon each other, e.g. Multiples of 10 x U leads to TU x U which leads to questions like 3.2 x 6 and also TU ÷ U. If there are gaps I notice in students learning, e.g. understanding what finding the difference means, this is also worked on in this time.
Now, it may be unfashionable, but I also believe in having a weekly mental maths test. However, I feel that this needs to be focused, personalised and differentiated for the needs of each student. Merely pressing play on an mp3 and having students all sit the same mental maths test which they cannot practise for is doing nothing more than getting them use to sitting that type of test. Rather, I use an Excel sheet like this to generate weekly mental maths tests. Students know what skills they need to practise and I also share a variation of this sheet with the families of the students so that they can practise at home. I find it works as these skills are also practised in my planned daily mental maths practise sessions. With this approach, even if the students do not receive support from home, they can still make progress and by doing so begin to feel better in their ability as mathematicians. And after all, isn’t part of our job to help students to become more confident mathematicians so that they can thrive in an increasingly data focussed world?
What do you use to help make your students more confident mathematicians? Do you agree that developing mental maths skills is important as I say it is? If not, what is the rationale behind this and what do you do different to promote students confidence and engagement with maths? Please leave your comments in the box below.