I had a fab visit to Australia earlier this year, and I was invited by Becky Cook, Director of Teaching and Learning at Southern Vale Christian College, South Australia, to meet a group of parents.
It was so interesting to see that the parents I met in Australia wanted to know the same sort of things that parents here in England want to know about how to make the most of helping their children with maths. I gave them a Maths for Parents session which went down really well.
But speaking internationally does have its potential pitfalls… I wanted to bring over the point that there is often more than one way to tackle a maths problem and we need to be flexible.
‘In Dorset, England where I live, is there a right way to get to London?’ I asked rhetorically. ‘No! There are several ways: the motorway or the scenic route, to name but two,’ I said; ‘There’s the route that just uses A-roads …’ Here in England we have so many roads that I can make the point easily using one mode of transport – travel by road.
So I then asked my attentive audience, ‘Is there just one way to get from Adelaide to Alice Springs?’ The parents looked puzzled, and I suddenly realised – actually there is only one road!
Fortunately, Becky had my back! ‘You could fly,’ she chipped in, ‘or take the train.’ So there is more than one way! Eventually the point was made and taken on board with much good humour. Most of the time, there isn’t just one ‘right way’.
Oh! The potential pitfalls of making international comparisons! You do have to be so careful when using real life examples. You cannot always easily just slot one example into another situation. You may need to adapt things slightly.
Above is a photo I took on the way from Alice Springs to Uluru (Ayres Rock), Northern Territory, Australia, whilst on my journey using the Lasseter Highway.
I have researched the field of parents and maths for many years, and I know that there are plenty of parents and carers who are in a similar position and who would have liked to ask that question. Few, however, get to express their impotent rage quite so clearly.
Of course, every profession has to use some level of technical language to communicate. For example, I used to have a hairdresser who, when discussing how he thought we should next try to style my hair, used language that described how he intended to achieve the new look. I didn’t always fully understand, but usually knew enough and trusted him enough to give it a go, and invariably was pleased.
Unfortunately, sometimes professionals are unaware that they are not communicating, as people do not recognise the terms they are using and so do not know what they are talking about. I have heard the term psycho-babble used to describe language that psychologists sometimes use, which means nothing to those who are not psychologists; but also the term edu-babble, to describe terms and language teachers and educationalists sometimes use, that means absolutely nothing to those who are not teachers.
Maths is littered with such edu-babble words, and it can be very off putting to parents. Often, there is a feeling in maths that you are the only one who feels like this and has this question to ask. Such is the nature of the subject, and many people have such a low opinion of their maths ability that they will almost inevitably think that it is their fault that they are having difficulties, and not bother to ask the quite reasonable questions they have. Realising that other parents feel the same too is such a relief for some.
So teachers may, as in this case, recommend that parents help children with ‘number bonds up to 20’, and not realise they are unwittingly using edu-babble and parents are not sure what the teachers are talking about.
So, in simple language, ‘number bonds up to 20’ means knowing the all pairs of numbers that when added together make up each of the numbers up to 20.
For example, 11 is a number less than 20, so knowing the pairs of numbers that add to make 11, (or knowing the ‘number bonds for 11’) means the children need to know, use and be able to write the following:
1+10=11, 10+1=11, 2+9=11, 9+2=11, etc.
These are a very important part of the basics that children would do well to know. Most parents know them all without even thinking about it, and have completely forgotten that there was a time when they had to learn them.
Once I had explained this to the parent, she understood what a number bond was and how important they are for children to know. She was also then receptive to hear how she could very easily support her child, and reinforce number bonds, in fun ways in everyday life at home. By the end of the course, she had invented her own maths games to play with her child! Rather than being annoyed, she now felt much happier and was able to be more engaged in her child’s learning.
Since 2013 I have been running Maths for Parents courses in people’s homes. It is a good place for many parents, away from the pressure and unhappy memories of school – unfortunately, many parents’ own childhood experience of school is at the root of a lot of negativity towards maths. I discuss many terms such as ‘number bonds’, and other areas parents want to know more about. I give plenty of time to let parents ask questions and I encourage them that no question is too silly! Building confidence in small groups is time-consuming but hugely rewarding.
I encourage parents that their engagement is hugely important. Often they do not realise, until I point it out, that they are – unknowingly – already doing lots of good maths with their children through simple everyday activities.
Feedback from the courses has been very encouraging, with many parents urging me to get the course out to other parents as they have found it so helpful. I have developed it over more than 30 years of helping parents to support their children’s maths, looking at it from both a practical and an academic point of view.
It began when my children were young and I took a career break from teaching and ended up running a small fashion business for a time. The things parents said to me at clothing parties – things that they might never have said to me when I was a teacher – led me to write my first book, Maths for Parents, and that led to the invitation from the University of Exeter to do research (which I eventually completed at the University of Bristol) in the field of parents helping their children with maths. It turned out to be ground-breaking research: there had been a few studies based on projects initiated by schools but nobody had ever really looked at it from the parents’ point of view at all.
Through the relaxed setting of the course – there is always plenty of tea and coffee and cake and biscuits – and through the topics covered, and the various discussions that arise, a culture of ‘Mathematical Resilience’ is created. In the course, even though maths is recognised as being a challenging subject, and at times needing hard work to come to grips with – a ‘can do’ rather than a ‘can’t do’ attitude towards maths is cultivated.
Someone described the course as ‘restoring dignity, and removing shame’ for people towards this subject that seems to stir up so many strong emotions. One parent wrote: ‘The course has taken the fear out of maths, and replaced it with an excitement to attempt more complex maths.’
Tanya Byron famously said, and I agree, ‘Perhaps the single most important thing that parents can do to help their children with maths is to pass on a positive attitude.’
And the course is not all about maths. There are plenty of ways that parents can help their children grow in confidence and raise self-esteem: never underestimate the value of even such trivial things as simply having a laugh with your children. Even though the parents themselves may not feel that they are good at maths, a little time and interest goes a long way. It is even possible that a shrewd question (so how did you get that answer?) can get a child to sort it out themselves even when the parent doesn’t really follow at all!
So, as a parent, I encourage you: do ask your child’s teacher to explain to you any technical expressions or terms that are used that you are not sure about. It’s not your fault!
And teachers, I encourage you to be on the lookout for edu-babble that is so easy to slip into using, without giving full explanations, and which can be so alienating!
‘I am loving what I am seeing! Keep it up!’ said one young mum to me recently.
Do take a look at what she was talking about – some of my very short YouTube video clips about how you can easily help your child with maths!
Glad to say that my grandchildren are coming to visit and we intend to make the most of the good weather and visit the beach.
There’s plenty of opportunity to play games at the beach and make maths part of everyday life!
It is so easy to overlook how much we use maths as part of our everyday life.
For example, travelling up to London by train reminded me how much maths is required just to plan this trip!
Travelled up by train to London yesterday. The train was crowded with many parents and children taking advantage of the special half-term ticket promotion offer on tickets.