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The Trouble with Maths

In most school subjects, the order you learn topics isn't important. In geography, you can study Australia before or after you tackle France and, in history, it's perfectly possible to learn about the American War of Independence without having a clue what Colombus was up to in 1492.

But maths is different. Each new topic builds on previous ones and, if you haven't got all the necessary background knowledge, learning something new is as hard as trying to build a tower when some of the bottom bricks are missing. 

For maths, those bottom bricks are the basic number skills -the foundation on which all mathematics is built. Unless children can add, subtract, multiply and divide, they will never be able to solve equations, work out percentages or fully understand timetables and the twenty four hour clock. Although calculators have taken much of the drudgery out of long calculations, they haven't removed the need to understand and use numbers competently.

But schools already know the importance of these basic skills. That's why they spend hours teaching them. So why do so many children have gaps in their understanding which cause trouble later? The answer's simple. They've just been taught maths faster than they've learnt it.

There are many reasons why this might have happened. Perhaps they were away when a particular topic was taught or their ability to learn was affected for a while by bullying, the death of the family cat or some other emotional upset. Perhaps they have been faced with worksheets they couldn't read easily or been given too little practice to enable them to master new skills. 

Whatever the reason, the solution is always the same. They need help to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, starting with the ones which cause the most trouble: the basic number skills. Only then will they be able to rebuild their shattered confidence with maths and move onto more advanced topics. 

Diana Kimpton
adapted from 
A Parent's Guide to Helping with Maths  (Penguin 1995)


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