Maths is being left behind – here’s how we can save it

As a subject, maths is predominantly directed rather than self-taught, and student progress has fallen sharply during the pandemic

It’s sadly an all too familiar thing for a teacher to hear a student say, “I hate maths”. Students often have a real problem connecting the abstract nature of the discipline with real world examples – especially in comparison to literacy, where digital tools can help to bring their learning to life. And students’ progress has fallen sharply during the pandemic compared to other subjects. But far from the teacher-led whiteboard activities or squared sum sheets of old, new digital maths software allows learners to draw, speak or type problems and equations directly onto their device. Not only does this make learning maths far more accessible – especially for learners with SEND – but students are able to use tools to visualise graphs and concepts, and improve their learning outcomes. They are able to engage, explore and express themselves in ways that match their ability and need.

Many of the factors causing students’ inability to connect with, or succeed in, maths can be remedied by increased use of edtech in the classroom; yet, maths lags behind other subjects in terms of edtech use. If we are to save maths in a world where children are spending more and more time on their devices, it’s essential to move beyond the pen and paper format and meet them where they are. In the process, a number of common issues students encounter in the maths classroom could be eliminated.

Maths anxiety

In 2019, a Nuffield Foundation report found that children as young as six reported feelings in line with a diagnosis of ‘mathematics anxiety’. This can stem from a number of factors, but the result is that students can feel nervous, sick, sweaty, angry, shaky, among a number of other symptoms, when they have to engage with mathematics.

But far from the teacher-led whiteboard activities or squared sum sheets of old, new digital maths software allows learners to draw, speak or type problems and equations directly onto their device

The same report found that the percentage of UK adults with functional maths skills equivalent to a grade C at GCSE level fell from 26% in 2003 to 22% in 2011. In contrast, functional literacy skills increased steadily during the same period, with 57% of working-age adults gaining the equivalent level.

It’s reasonable to conclude that maths anxiety hinders students’ progress in maths at school, which consequently hinders their lifelong maths ability.

But how can edtech help alleviate this anxiety?

Edtech gives students privacy and builds confidence. For an anxious student, putting your hand up to answer a question in class can be a fear-inducing process. They may be thinking: ‘What if the answer is wrong and everyone in the class thinks I’m stupid?’

While we know that getting an answer wrong doesn’t make a student stupid, the fear is a real one for those with maths anxiety. But edtech gives these students the ability to complete exercises and get immediate feedback, without ever exposing themselves to the perceived threat of ridicule.

SEND students

Due to the fact that maths lags behind other subjects in terms of edtech usage, it remains one of the only remaining subjects to be done predominantly on paper. This emphasis on physically drawing numbers, graphs, shapes, etc. can make the subject more difficult for students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). Conditions like dyslexia, dyscalculia and dyspraxia can all hinder students’ ability to accurately record their thinking on paper.

Edtech gives teachers the ability to make teaching maths visual. Whether it’s through videos, animation, graphs, infographics, or digital freehand drawing, explaining mathematical concepts via visual aids makes it significantly easier for SEND students whose conditions entail visual processing difficulties to comprehend them. It can help support the language of maths, build vocabulary and remove the barriers of its potentially abstract nature.

Added to this is the fact that recording your working becomes easier – with edtech products there’s no need for a pen and paper, students can simply type, hand-write or even dictate their answers, so edtech has the power to both explain concepts to SEND students more effectively and provide alternatives to writing, removing a significant stress factor for many students in the process.

Maths doesn’t seem applicable to the real world

Students often claim that maths problems don’t have real-world applications. A common complaint is: ‘What’s the point in learning this? If I ever need to know what 7 x 64 is, I’ll have my phone calculator with me.’ Students today know that they’re unlikely to ever need to make a simple calculation without the assistance of a smartphone.

And this is true, to an extent. But maths is so much more than simple arithmetic and offers invaluable skills for lifelong learning – the issue is how to communicate this to students.

Bringing edtech into the maths classroom gives teachers the opportunity to be creative. A video taken in a supermarket outlining a mathematical problem, for example, can bring that question to life and is more engaging than if the same question was simply written on a worksheet. ‘Connectedness’ is vital.

But maths is so much more than simple arithmetic and offers invaluable skills for lifelong learning – the issue is how to communicate this to students

Through making use of real-life examples to explain mathematical concepts and engaging students through interactive learning, edtech can be the perfect partner to drive effective and relatable maths instruction.

Maths is often directed, rather than learned and practiced independently

Maths has typically been taught in the ‘talk and chalk’ format, where the teacher stands at the front of the class and instructs students. This type of teaching leaves little room for interaction.

It’s natural that students are more likely to ‘zone out’ when being taught in this manner. Nothing is required of them but to listen passively, so they don’t engage with the content. But with edtech, teachers have the ability to set the class interactive exercises and monitor their progress in real-time. It provides an opportunity for expression, exploration, for stretch and for challenge. This not only makes students more engaged in class, but it fosters an independence which has lifelong benefits.

‘Stuck in the time of calculators and interactive whiteboards’

To see the benefits edtech has to offer in the mathematics department, we need to bring the subject up to the standard of others. Broadly speaking, literacy is well-supported by edtech resources in schools, yet maths teaching remains stuck in the time of calculators and interactive whiteboards. The resources are there to support maths teaching, so it’s predominantly an issue of uptake rather than availability. But if we are to keep students engaged with maths in an increasingly technological classroom, now is the time to consider bringing edtech into maths teaching. With this, we deepen learning and create a love for and understanding of maths for every student.

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