Why there’s more to maths than rote learning

  • Why there’s more to maths than rote learning

By the time students enter their secondary education, many will have developed maths anxiety, a debilitating condition that causes sufferers to avoid dealing with numbers in real life situations, as well as at school. Chances are, you have some of these pupils in your classroom.

In fact, according to a 2018 poll, 36% of 15-24 year-olds feel anxious about maths. But young people need to understand numbers because they are a key part of our lives, from managing finances to pursuing a career in STEM. There must be a way to reduce this anxiety and make maths a subject to enjoy.

Painful practice

Having a stronger grasp of the basic mathematical facts could help students feel less anxious, but how can we help them achieve this? There’s a school of thought which argues that rote learning is the best way to build a solid foundation in maths and also to build confidence in the subject.

In a recent New York Times OpEd article, Professor Barbara Oakley advocates rote learning, and at the same time acknowledges that with its focus on drilling and repetition, rote practice is not fun, and nor should it be. Professor Oakley suggests that parents should embed maths practice in their child’s learning, even if the child finds it painful.

This approach to memorisation may have its merits. Certainly there are clear advantages in being able to recall mathematical facts such as times tables swiftly and accurately, and rote learning is one way to load these facts into our memory banks. But pain seems a rather high price to pay for learning mathematics.

Concepts and connections

Instead, shouldn’t we be aiming to help our students feel more positive about maths by allowing them to experiment with numbers, identify patterns and manipulate concepts? Rote practice may achieve certain learning objectives, but it should never take the place of immersion in the wondrous landscape of numbers.

It is when students discover connections for themselves that they start to appreciate the beauty of mathematics, and to remember the basic facts without effort or pain.

Let’s take the student who somehow manages to remember all the names, statistics and match histories of the players in their favourite sports team. You can be sure that they haven’t spent time learning this information by heart.

Knowing all the facts and figures about their sporting heroes comes as a result of following a sport, supporting a team and being personally invested in their results. The student is deeply immersed in their sport, and learning the team names isn’t something they have consciously tried to do.

A better relationship

Similarly, have you ever wondered why we find it easy to recall the words to the songs from our past, even when years have passed since we heard them? It’s because the lyrics we remember follow a rhythm that helps us build up strong associations with the music. We didn’t need to practice them over and over until we remembered them; it just happened.

We should aim to help our students develop an intimate relationship with numbers and mathematical objects by encouraging exploration. This will not only lead to greater conceptual understanding, it will also instil a love for the subject.

Barbara Oakley remarks that your child will thank you in the long run for rote practice. But as well as the drilling, chanting and memorising, we need students to discover more of the inner workings of mathematics so that the subject no longer provokes anxiety or fear, but rather stimulates curiosity, wonder and joy.

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About the author

Dr Junaid Mubeen, director of education at Whizz Learning, holds a doctorate in mathematics from Oxford University, a master’s degree in Education from Harvard, and is also a Countdown series champion.