By Bruce Brassington

Pupils Make ‘Basic’ Numeracy Errors – Is There a Solution?

Bruce Brassington – EMEA Schools Director

Last week in Scotland my eye was caught by the headline of a local newspaper, “Higher maths pupils making ‘basic’ numeracy errors”. The accompanying article identified troubling news in official reports on recent exam results noting how pupils had not done well where mental calculations were required instead of using a calculator (1). It argued that this was further reason for concerns about numeracy standards in Scotland – especially given implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence in 2010.

As disappointing as the article is, I have to say I’m not really surprised. With digital technologies so prevalent nowadays, children no doubt offload a lot of the brain’s responsibility to those little shiny magic gadgets that are so easily accessible. Smartphones and calculators now handle feats of memory and calculation that two generations ago were purely the domain of ‘little grey cells’.

Before the prevalence of satellite navigation, I remember an excellent sense of direction from the onboard 3D mapping capability in my brain – not so much anymore! If I asked you to remember five different eleven-digit numbers, could you do it? Not so long ago we would typically be able to reel off several phone numbers from memory.

So can this trend be reversed and, if so, by what? Perhaps by practising mental maths exercises? Maybe the power of those little magic gadgets can be harnessed to assist in this regard? There are certainly many instances out there of people who believe so (2). By combining the concept of ‘gaming’ – which ironically exploits the very techniques that hook us to those screens in the first place – with the need to encourage core skills, such as mental arithmetic, the education sector can enable ‘mental calculation’ via the use of engaging online learning tools.

Evidence seems to suggest this approach works: the right EdTech in classrooms is helping to stimulate and engage children’s minds. For example, a recent study in Brazil showed that use of a game-based maths platform in the classroom boosted interest in the subject by 70% (3). But we, as teachers, parents and technology providers, still have a long way to go to help bridge this gap for our future generations.

Never fear, there’s hope yet…

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By Bruce Brassington