Is the new maths curriculum adding up?

Brent Hughes, teacher trainer for Matific, on how the new maths curriculum should include gamification and technology to engage primary school pupils

Unfortunately, maths is still a subject that many children struggle with. With the new curriculum demanding complete understanding of each skill before they reach another level (maths mastery), it has brought with it new challenges for teachers; they need support in teaching to the new curriculum and inspiring children to want to learn maths. 

When a child is given a problem to solve, they need to fully recognize which mathematical skills need to be applied in order to be able to solve it. It is vital that we engage children with maths to equip them with these problem-solving skills they will need when they enter the workplace. The gamification approach has been a particularly popular method, but how do we ensure it adds value to our teaching rather than something best suited to the playground?

If we are to truly engage children with maths, we need to take a two-level approach to gamification techniques; firstly we must dispel presumptions that maths is “boring” and secondly it needs to be positioned as something that anyone can learn. The first is achieved through play, and then the mathematical skills from this can be applied to ‘serious’ games, which are based on problem solving; aligned to something they’d be faced with in real life. At both levels, technology is a perfect vehicle to deliver relevant and engaging maths lessons, ready for the 21st century classroom.

For ‘play’ games, the aim is to initially activate some enthusiasm in the subject. Today’s children have been raised with technology fully integrated into their lives, and mobile devices have been designed with intuitive interfaces and provide a natural platform for learning. Their value should not be underestimated.

Firstly we must dispel presumptions that maths is “boring” and secondly it needs to be positioned as something that anyone can learn.

So, we can take the fact that children already spend hours playing games in their spare time, and take advantage of that. Computer games and consoles can actually provide a way for children to improve fine motor skills as well as social and technological skills. By selecting a game with a heavy mathematical influence, such as the Nintendo Wii game Sesame Street: Cookie’s Counting Carnival, problem solving can be introduced in a way that is already familiar to the student. You could also use game time as a reward for completing some of the more ‘serious’ games, while keeping in line with the objectives of the lesson.

When progressing onto ‘serious’ games, the aim is to show students a real-life application of the mathematical skills, such as the ones learned through the ‘play’ segment.

An example of this type of activity in Matific is one game where the players are invited to attend a party on another planet. They are given specific information on the party: where it is, how to get there, and what they have to bring. They have to look up the price of a seat on the spaceship to get to the planet, and read a timetable to see when they need to travel. They then need to check they have enough money for two seats for themselves and a friend but may only have large value notes to spend. How much change should they expect to get? If they need to be at the party by 4:00pm what spaceship do they need to book their ticket for?

In addition to the children completing such tasks online, you can also take advantage of interactive whiteboards and other digital devices to create an opportunity to engage groups of students and create a healthy sense of competition. Smaller groups could be formed to collate joint scores, which can be hosted online and accessed throughout the week. Furthermore, this could be another demonstration of how maths can be applied in real life; you could ask the children to work out how many more points the team in second place needs to move up the league table into first position.

The most important factor to consider when using gamification to engage children with any subject, but especially maths, is to reward them for even the smallest wins, without penalizing them when they get something wrong. Positive reinforcements, such as badges, levels, achievements or game points, and allowing students to simply try again if they get something wrong, helps maths break free from its negative reputation. Removing the fear of failure and bringing play into the learning experience encourages engagement but also pushes a new, “fun” brand for maths, helping both teachers and students to navigate the challenges set by the new curriculum.