Published 2015 Revised 2021
This article was originally published on the Royal Society's Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) blog.
If we want to create more positive attitudes and higher achievement in mathematics, what better place to start than in the early years? This was the thinking of the new All Party Parliamentary Group for Mathematics and Numeracy.
What predicts success in mathematics?
We actually know a lot from research about building mathematical success in the early years, and we could do this more effectively than at present. A large scale study of pre-school experiences (Sammons et al 2002, Siraj-Blatchford et al 2002) found two key factors which predict progress:
We also know from research that a key focus for early mathematics is developing
After this children need to develop understanding of numbers as made up of other numbers, and number combinations (Geary, 2011; Gifford, 2014).
While the specialists on the APPG panel agreed that understanding the meaning of numbers is a priority for early years mathematics, this key idea is not apparent in the Numbers Goal for five year olds (DfE, 2013). Instead it focuses on the skill of 'counting reliably' and adding by counting on, which research shows is expected of most children when they are 6 years old (Cross et al, 2009). Research has shown that focusing on reasoning and understanding rather than knowledge is more likely to increase achievement in primary school (Nunes et al, 2009). We therefore need to consolidate children's understanding in the early years, rather than try to accelerate untypical performance.
How to produce children with mathematics difficulties
Research has also shown us how to create young children with negative attitudes to mathematics and we seem to be going the right way about it:
It is interesting that high performing jurisdictions avoid both of these, by having a later school starting age, giving children more time to consolidate basic number understandings, and by not 'ability grouping' children (OECD, 2012).
Effective and appropriate early years mathematics pedagogy
The good news is that we know a lot about this: it involves approaches which are common in early years settings (Gifford, 2005):
Two important aspects for practitioners to develop are:
The characteristics of effective learning from the EYFS (DfE, 2012) could provide a useful basis for exemplification:
What is needed is a clear progression of 'big ideas' to develop number sense - giving guidance on what to look for and how to provide for it. Like such curricula in other countries, such as New Zealand (NZ Ministry of Education, 2010) it needs to be based on research, with detailed exemplars matching the key ideas (unlike the present and previous versions (STA, 2012; EE, 2012). Big ideas would
include number values to 10 and 20, comparing numbers and numbers within numbers: contexts would include outdoor and indoor activities and games, like scoring goals or cooking, routines like snack time and rhymes and stories, including opportunities for discussing puzzles and problems (see NRICH's EYFS activities).
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