Maths, Wondrous Maths – Feeding children’s curiosity

It is very sad, but even as many children reach Years 5 and 6, you can see that already they have a negative attitude towards maths. Even those who are very capable sometimes aren’t motivated or interested.

This can be down to a number of things, but ultimately the abstract nature of what we are teaching the children can make it difficult to identify why what they are doing is interesting or important. The ease of using formal methods of teaching with rigid paths can leave little room for exploration or generation of interest.

Often mathematics is made more interesting by using real life contexts. This can be brilliant, and produce fantastic maths and I don’t want to take anything away from using this approach but sometimes the links are there just for the sake of it. My biggest mistake back when I was an NQT was trying to put contexts into everything. Isn’t it possible to make mathematics on its own truly wondrous? Can’t we generate enthusiasm for mathematics itself without relying on tenuous links? In the long term, by approaching maths as such, children can become keen and engaged, desperate to learn more.

One of the more abstract and difficult areas that primary schools have to approach is the concept of decimals. Ask most children what a decimal is, you can almost be guaranteed to be greeted with a confused response. How are they supposed to enjoy something they have no concept of whatsoever?

guinea pig and bee
Using animals to reinforce relative size

My first decimals lesson with a class is always very hands-on. First we talk about why we need decimals, imagining a place where you could only be 1 or 2m tall, where everything has to be sold in whole number of pounds or all time is given in seconds because minutes would be too long. The ridiculousness of it is a great starter. Then given strips of paper with lengths illustrated in whole, tenths and hundredths (see left) we are off measuring different things, initially using either whole metres or whole tenths, then using hundredths as well.

Often money is used as a first approach to decimals, but I don’t think it is as effective as measurement. 10 lots of 1p doesn’t have the same visual reinforcement that measurement does and it is through these lengths that the children are able to establish the key ideas of exchanging and the significance of 10 in our number system.

The realisation that with each decimal place the value was 10 times smaller produced some really great pidiscussion. Having been asked to imagine how big 0.001m was one child responded with, “Imagine what the 1000th decimal place would look like!” The idea blew their minds. I mentioned that some decimal numbers go on forever and many of them had heard of pi. I quickly showed them a website showing one million digits of pi, suddenly my class had an obsession with it.

Another example I have from this year is with multiplication. Mathematics is brilliant for patterns and finding patterns. I set two challenges, the children chose which one to have a go at. One was to find a TU x TU that resulted in an answer as close to but below 1000. The other, I gave them the example of 32 x 46 = 1472 and if I reverse the digits of both my numbers I also get 23 x 64 = 1472 (taken from the excellent Inquiry Maths website). It took something that they felt fairly confident with (2 digit multiplication) and added an edge that really tested their abilities as mathematicians. When we compiled examples at the end and looked for patterns they really were keen to understand why it only worked sometimes.

Sometimes it is giving time to questions they might have. The other day a child asked me if decimal numbers can be odd or even. This is where maths can be so interesting. With the opportunities for these kinds of discussions the children look forward to maths. Sometimes you can throw these questions at them as starters;

It isn’t always easy, and it isn’t always going to be exciting. I know with my lessons I there have been plenty of times where I thought I was fostering curiosity and instead have created confusion. As well as this, sometimes the curriculum makes it difficult. But the long term benefits of creating an environment where children are curious about maths can be so rewarding. Having the opportunities to look for patterns, to understand maths, can make it a whole new subject for some. Ultimately, when they are enthused by the maths itself they are so much more willing to try and grasp those difficult concepts.