In a piece for Prospect last year, I reported on developments on the US front of the “maths wars” (an ongoing conflict over how maths should be taught in schools) and suggested that these may have implications for the 40 per cent of children who leave British primary schools without adequate maths or English.
My report was based on the work of schools and children in the Stanford Tizard project. My fellow researchers and I are re-evaluating a math curriculum developed by the math educator Caleb Gattegno, the founder of the UK Association of Mathematics Teachers. For a time it seemed that Labour’s new regime would take the opportunity to replace our outmoded model of maths learning. In this article we look at what has gone wrong, why, and what we might yet do about it.
Last July, Ed Balls set up a Review of Maths Teaching in Early Years and Primary Schools. He asked its chairman, Peter Williams, two key questions:
a) What is the most effective design and sequencing of the maths curriculum?
b) What subject knowledge should we require of primary teachers?
The conventional primary maths sequence introduces kids to new operators one at a time over six years: sequence and order, plus, minus, multiply, divide, fractions as operators and as magnitudes. It ends with algebra. Numbers grow in size as the years progress.
In an interim report, open to further evidence until tomorrow, Williams asserts “there is a clear and logical evolution in the primary curriculum from number and counting eventually to more complex and abstract concepts in mathematics.”
We owe this “clear and logical” progression to Jean Piaget, a pioneer of standardised testing. His pre-WWII experiments became the foundation for the 1970s Chelsea College Maths Concepts Project (CSMS). CSMS delivered personnel, test data and curriculum frameworks for the national curriculum, and its international offshoot—the National Foundation for Educational Research (now owned by private equity). Piaget similarly supplied the US K-8 approach to math education (his US followers call themselves constructivists).
Williams concluded his interim report by saying “this conventional approach has much to offer and no recommendations for fundamental change to the sequence in which math is delivered are being made at this stage.” He recommends that government should invest in a “primary maths” specialist for each of the 1,500 schools with lowest performing children. The aim is to ”recover” 30,000 children’s maths.