Michaela Community School | Until I Know Better – Holier than thou
Michaela Community School, Wembley


Until I Know Better – Holier than thou

16 Mar 2017, Posted by admin in Michaela's Blog

Holier than thou 

I try to avoid polemics, or being divisive. The topic below is one where, I suspect, opinion is already sharply divided and each side views the other with suspicion and some incredulity.

1) It really gets my goat when a teacher reserves an efficient strategy or rule-of-thumb for themselves, yet insists that pupils may only have access to a complex and more confusing version (i.e. The revered “correct” version). What happens in practice is that bright sparks quickly see the underlying pattern, check it for reliability, and then adopt the rule of thumb unimpeded by the teacher’s beliefs. The rest remain confused, experience low success rates in their work and thus low confidence and motivation.

2) If someone uses or shares a heuristic or strategy that isn’t technically accurate, but is efficient and reliable, it is bizarre to assume that they must be an ignorant teacher. Maybe they are. But maybe they’ve made a strategic calculation about how best to teach their pupils.

I have never met a maths teacher who doesn’t know that “the decimal point doesn’t move, the digits do.”

I get the impression most pupils have been told it too, especially in primary.

Low accuracy in this topic is one of the most common hallmarks of pupils who struggle in maths generally.

If a teacher teaches the strategy of “move the decimal point,” it is unlikely to be due to ignorance on their part. The cry “the point doesn’t move!” felt like a tired phrase before I’d even finished my PGCE year. It’s the “not all men” of the maths teaching world.

When multiplying or dividing by a power of 10, the crucial change is the relative position of the digits and the place value columns. Moving the digits, or moving the columns (i.e. the decimal point) will both get you there.

Overwhelmingly, numerate adults use the “rule” of “add a 0 to the end” when they are multiplying integers by 10. Overwhelmingly, numerate adults move the decimal point to multiply or divide by a power of 10. I don’t understand why we would block pupils’ access to this widely used approach, or than to be sanctimonious, to think “I’m not interested in them getting to the right answer, I’m interested in how they think, and in building deep understanding.”

Any decent maths teacher is interested in how pupils think and in building deep understanding. But is simplistic and arguably harmful to insist that learning only takes the form of “deepening understanding.” We learn to speak with (relative) grammatical accuracy long before we learn what it means to conjugate. I suspect most British people can’t parse their speech and writing. I also suspect that, if we’d forced them to learn to parce as the sole method of learning to speak and write, they would be terrible at it, and most would hate it.

We enjoy things we feel we are good at, and getting better at. Deep thought can only take place in the context of a rich landscape of examples, exceptions and intellectual self-confidence. Teaching a rule and building fluency creates the context for the surprisingly deep and difficult thought that underpins place value.

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