Another universal panacea…

BBC Education News is reporting on the introduction of the “Asian Maths Method” to primary schools.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against new approaches, whether they are from Asia, Mars, or the next classroom along. We should always be open-minded, prepared to experiment and to amend what we do.

But what always bugs me is the sloppy thinking. The article talks about functional innumeracy being much lower in Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong than in the UK. Yes, that is interesting and perhaps raises some questions. But why assume it is automatically because of the use of a specific method? Couldn’t other factors be more important? For example,  cultural factors such as how education is viewed, how frowned on innumeracy is, and how much support and reinforcement is offered at home can be hugely important to success. And even restricting it to educational methods – would you expect levels of functional innumeracy at 15 to be solely explicable from methods used in primary school? Hey, that’s like saying I can blame my pupils’ GCSE results on their KS2 teachers!

So let’s look at the content. I see it places importance on the use of textbooks rather than worksheets, for a start. I never actually realised that was revolutionary as I’ve been doing it in my classroom all along, and it happened when I was at school too. Of course it is useful to have access to earlier work, and to be able to refer back, or consult worked examples. That is why textbooks are such an old – and long-standing – “technology”.
But thinking practically for a minute –  I assume the schools implementing this “new” approach won’t be allowing the kids to take them home, as unless they can work some sort of miracle, kids will forget them, and sometimes little brothers/sisters or the dog will eat them/remove pages…  Ideally, a home copy and a school copy would be provided, of course, but will that be funded?

They talk about whole-class teaching, and encouraging the higher achievers to gain a “deeper” understanding rather than racing ahead. Yes, sounds fair to me – I’ve never thought it’s a good plan to have your top end studying topics that the rest of the class will come to later, and so deferring their boredom, and agree it’s much better to tackle more thought-provoking material related to the basic topic.  But I will be very interested to hear how this “deeper” understanding is to be achieved. If you are teaching your class about, say, adding fractions, what deeper conceptual grasp can you ask that is not either something you want everyone to learn (eg that you don’t just multiply the denominators to find the LCD) or is really a bit beyond kids in isolation (eg application to algebraic fractions)?  I’m also interested in when there will be space for the extension of the individual in the lesson, given that they are not keen on “slower individual practice” – if I am to acquire a deeper understanding, I need time to tackle tougher problems and/or to read about the concepts.

And yet again, we see reference to “specialist teachers”. Guess what – my maths degree does not make me particularly well suited to teaching a 7 year old how to multiply. We didn’t discuss multiplication in any more depth, actually. Or how kids learn it.     I would agree entirely with concerns about maths in primary (or indeed, secondary) schools being taught by those who are not secure in their own knowledge and understanding – this can result in a rote-learning approach, little flexibility or creativity and a lack of provision for those who wish to go beyond the curriculum, and for those for whom the “standard” explanations do not work. But avoiding these pitfalls does not require a mathematics specialist – it requires a competent, confident teacher who understands the subject thoroughly at the appropriate level.

I have no doubt that the approaches involved in the “Asian method” have their place in the repertoire of the classroom teacher, as do the many other approaches promoted to us over the years. A good teacher will adapt what they do depending on the topic, the class, and even depending on when in the day the lesson is, how far into the term etc. A good teacher will not regard any approach as the universal answer – variety in the educational diet is crucial- we don’t live on educational brussels sprouts alone!


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