A PRIVATE school maths head claims children’s “Stone Age” natural ability to do the subject is being destroyed by modern teaching methods.
Stuart Welsh – the head of maths at £11,000-a-year Glasgow High School – reckons all children are born with a “survival instinct understanding” of numbers.
This ability allowed their hunter-gatherer ancestors to estimate the number of wild boar in a pack or quickly to judge how many berries were on a bush – giving them the edge in a survival-of-the-fittest world.
Mr Welsh warns this ability is being killed off by modern teaching.
According to the teacher, rigid adherence to a set of techniques and formulas prevents children’s instinctive knowledge of maths from flourishing.
Mr Welsh was last week a key speaker at a conference in Edinburgh on literacy and numeracy.
Writing in education magazine TESS, he argued that maths is “a survival instinct that we developed because of evolution and prehistoric needs”.
He added: “Whether it was looking at the quantity of wild boar and knowing straight away that one is a meal and ten is a stampede, or judging quickly that a bush is full of berries.
“Counting isn’t necessarily required, but an understanding of quantity is.”
This ability is innate in every pupil “but more or less, we kill it off in school”.
Mr Welsh explained that an over-reliance on strict techniques such as times tables were to blame for obscuring information which children already intuitively understand.
A great number of children do not find such techniques useful, and many are turned off the subject as early as primary school.
He went on: “As maths goes on and on, it really does seem to be a never-ending stream of procedures that need to be memorised and practised.
“Somewhere along the line the intuition is completely eroded and they just become almost slaves to the written method.
“Reliance on a calculator is one of the most dangerous things I see – [pupils] clutch to it like a security blanket.”
Instead of insisting on teaching children to “rattle through a quadratic equation”, he said, schools should do more to promote determination, creativity and resilience.
Professor John MacBeath – of Cambridge University’s Centre for Commonwealth Education – said he “totally agreed” with Welsh’s statement.
As an example of intuitive understanding of mathematics he described witnessing a girl in early-years education in a room of four people.
When she was presented with a plate with five cakes she instinctively asked: “Who’s the other one for?”
But when forced to learn algebra at a later age, pupils are made to “hate maths and numbers” and “just go blah” at the discipline, he said.