The number’s game: New approach to maths problem

From corned beef cans in a supermarket display to candles on a birthday cake, the teaching tools for maths teachers have started to become much more diverse. A new ‘reality based’ approach is at the heart of a shift in teaching style in Cayman’s schools aimed at helping students make sense of mathematics. Numeracy specialist Frank Eade is leading a change style that education officials hope will lead to improvement in standards. 

Fundamental changes to the way maths is taught in the Cayman Islands could help bring about a long-awaited improvement, education officials believe. 

Behind-the-scenes at Cayman’s schools significant energy has been dedicated to providing teachers with the tools they need to improve performance in maths, where results have been stagnant for decades. 

Much of that work is being led by Frank Eade, a numeracy specialist brought in by the Department of Education in 2011. 

One of the key initiatives he has helped introduce is an intensive intervention programme for struggling students. 

Teachers from every school in the Cayman Islands have been trained as “maths recovery” specialists.  

Now seriously struggling students get ten weeks of one-on-one coaching for half-an-hour every day to bring them up to standard. 

Eade said intervention in the early years was crucial to long-term success. 

But he says the change he has tried to bring to Cayman’s classrooms goes deeper than extra time commitment. 

A shift in focus towards a visual style of learning that uses “reality as a source of mathematics” underpins the new approach to teaching. Eade delivered an 18-month course to teachers from every school in the Cayman Islands to qualify them as Leaders in Mathematics at their schools. 

Their role is now to spread the ideas through their schools. Fundamental to the approach is a change in teaching style. 

“What I found when I arrived was a very traditional approach, a view of maths as a system of rules learnt and practiced in isolation… 

“Using reality as a source of mathematics is quite different. That is likely to get you the most gains in terms of helping children refine intuitions.” 

Visual aids, such as dice and number lines, even field trips to the supermarket are part of the new approach. 

Eade said relating maths to real-life situations, such as the relationship between the number of candles on a cake and a child’s age, helped them understand the concept of numbers. 

“It is about setting maths in a situation they can make sense of. One thing you will see a lot of teachers use now is the notion of fairness.  

“They may distribute some sweets and ask the children ‘do you think that is fair?’ and my experience is very young children have a very good instinct about what is fair.” 

He said similar scenarios, including calculating change or counting cans in a supermarket display, could help children relate to mathematical concepts and build problem solving skills. 

Clive Baker, head of curriculum services at the ministry of education, said a large part of Eade’s role was to “build capacity” by passing on new ideas and methods to teachers. 

“We have some pretty fundamental things that Frank was able to unpick and a new strategy has come out of it.  

“If it was as simple as changing from one exam syllabus to another or buying in a new text book, we would have done it years ago. This is more of a long term fundamental change of approach… 

“When you make a change like this the first thing you have to do is win the hearts and minds of the people delivering it.  

“The teachers have to see this is an effective way. I think that has happened already.” 

Another aspect of Eade’s job has been to talk to parents and convince them that “maths is everywhere”. 

“It is really helpful to be able to see that when you walk into Fosters there is mathematics. Playing games, like dominoes or just setting the table, all these things can be learning experiences.” 

At a deeper level the real breakthrough, says Eade, is in understanding how numbers relate to each other.  

“Actually recognising that 19 is not just 19 it is one away from 20 and I can use that to help me do all sorts of calculations is an important insight. That is something that visual aids, like number lines help with. 

“What we are teaching is really strategies and problem solving skills not just information.” 

Baker said it may take time for the gains in the classroom to be reflected in exam results. 

“The overall change in maths is going to take longer. We have seen a massive improvement at CXC/GCSE. We’ve been able to bring fundamental changes in some subjects by putting a focus on certain strategies but maths has not really moved in a decade.  

“It is much more hierarchical than some other subjects because if you don’t have that fundamental understanding of number it holds you back for the rest of your life.” 

He added that improvement was crucial in the long term. 

“If we don’t get school leavers that are adept and have a clear understanding of numeracy and literacy, they are not prepared for the 21st century. If they can’t problem solve, they are not articulate, they can’t think their way round issues then they’re not going to be able to compete successfully in a global workplace”