Step-by-step approach crucial for maths success

2008-04-23 00:00

Mathematics education at primary and secondary school levels poses serious challenges to pupils. It is important to ensure that instruction at primary school level is clear and coherent so that pupils will develop mathematical skills logically, consistently and systematically. This is also essential because it will help pupils to grasp mathematical concepts with a minimum of obstacles.

Teachers need to ensure that the subject matter is in line with pupils’ relevant previous knowledge. This is important because most mathematical concepts are hierarchical in structure. They are like a chain of links supporting each other. If one link is weak, the whole chain breaks.

During the ongoing learning processes teachers should check if pupils have achieved the learning goals set. Teaching methods used must enable pupils to understand. These methods have to be as child-centred as possible to encourage pupils to participate in the learning process.

One problem that pupils face every year is the changing of teachers. As pupils change teachers, there is a likelihood that a teacher in an earlier grade may have taught a concept in a contradictory way or not covered it at all.

Once a concept has been poorly covered, pupils will find it difficult to understand other related concepts.

To avoid a scenario where pupils face serious challenges in mathematics, teachers ought to work on a school-based, long-term plan at foundation, intermediate and senior phases of primary school. In such a plan, teachers should agree on how to treat different topics from a long-term perspective. However, a plan like this one must not be too rigid. If it is, eventually the plan will prove to be ineffective.

If teachers realise that the plan is not meeting the goals set, he or she must revise and adapt it to a framework that is more realistic. It is important to note that it is the pupils who are the target of learning, not the plan.

There is also a need to make a short-term plan. This plan has to include a choice of teaching methods and media intended to facilitate learning in children. One problem associated with the short-term plan is that teaching will not always work as planned.

Sometimes, pupils will fail to learn what was planned. If this happens early in teaching a new topic, it will often lead to serious consequences in the long run, because of the hierarchical structure of mathematical concepts.

When children face problems, there is the need to try a new approach and wait for the pupils to grasp the concepts learnt. The teacher should use his or her dicretion to decide what topics to spend more or less time on.

A good rule of thumb is to spend more time on those topics that belong to the long chain of

knowledge. Addition is such an example. If pupils do not understand addition, they will also have problems with subtraction, multiplication, division, decimals and percentages.

In order to critically examine if and how your plan works, there is the need for a continuous feedback mechanism by way of written and oral tests.

Tests are important because they provide a method of identifying areas that require particular attention.

Always use a short test at the beginning of a new topic. That way it is possible to know pupils’ pre-knowledge and adapt teaching to pupils’ needs. If not, the teacher may become aware of pupils’ pre-knowledge after a lot of valuable time and effort has been lost.

It is important to check if pupils achieved the current learning objectives before leaving the topic. If the goal has not been achieved, the teacher can spend more time on the topic, plan a new session or revise the topic later on.

Although a well-designed test can reveal a lot about pupils’ problems, it will also give general information on the surface.

The test may reveal the type of problems that arise. However, the reasons for the problems may not be clear. For that reason the results of the test ought to be followed up by interviewing a sample of pupils.

The simplest way is to ask pupils to solve a few tasks once again. During the interview, ask the pupils to explain the solution to the problem and observe their behaviour. In this way you can learn a lot, not only about their knowledge and understanding, but also about the effectiveness of your methods.

In conclusion, teachers should note that planning, teaching methods, revision exercises and continuous assessment are important elements of a successful and effective mathematics teaching programme. When teachers don’t synchronise these inter-related elements, it will make mathematics a difficult subject for primary school and high school pupils to learn.

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