‘Change focus of maths teaching’

Experts have recommended changes in how the increased time spent teaching maths is used.

The significantly improved maths performances of primary pupils between 2009 and 2014 have previously been attributed to the increased time spent teaching the subject.

New analysis of the factors behind those scores reveal that, over five years, the average time spent teaching maths increased by about five minutes a day to 57 minutes, without counting extra time integrating numeracy into all other subjects.

But while the importance of overall time dedicated to maths is acknowledged by the Educational Research Centre (ERC), an author of its report on the results says those lessons need to focus more on higher-order processes.

Gerry Shiel said it is also important that teaching time is more evenly spread over all maths areas than in the past, where numbers work tended to be over-emphasised at the expense of areas like geometry and measures.

He said there is also an over-emphasis on procedural aspects of maths, to the neglect of reasoning and problem solving. Feedback gathered by the ERC from teachers shows this is the area of the subject in which just over half of those teaching sixth class believe they need more training.

The 2014 testing was carried out with more than 8,000 pupils in second and sixth classes at 150 schools.

Teachers surveyed at the time were receiving twice as much professional development in relation to literacy and numeracy than they had been previously.

The number of days they had attended courses on English teaching in the previous two years was 5.6, compared to just 2.2 in the previous three years, when testing was carried out in 2009.

The additional time on these subjects and increased provision of training for teachers were key factors in the 2011 Literacy and Numeracy Strategy, which was widely recognised last year as the main factor in significant improvements on pupils’ performances in the national assessments.

The relationship between maths homework and pupils’ test scores were also considered. It was found that 81% of children do maths homework most school days, but the minority who hardly ever do homework in the subject had significantly lower test scores.

Lower-scoring pupils in maths need more help with homework and are more likely to ask for it than stronger pupils. The number of sixth-class pupils who play no computer games dropped from 29% to 9% between 2009 and 2014, but this may reflect a shift from games being played on consoles and computers to mobile devices.

The associations between pupils’ home and family lives and their achievements at reading and maths have been reinforced by the contextual information on pupils who did the 2014 tests and their parents.

The ERC report recommends schools try to raise awareness among parents on practices that support children’s academic development, such as reading books at home or using libraries, but also on behaviour that is not so positive like unmonitored TV access and large amounts of technology use.

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