If you’re finding this difficult…

If, as Wendy Jones of the UK’s National Numeracy charity states, children’s interest and attainment in maths dip between the ages of seven and nine, “in most cases, never to return”, what is going on in this period?

One answer is that maths gets difficult. One moves from number bonds and simple addition and subtraction to multiplication tables and beyond; from what one can see and touch, even if only in one’s mind’s eye, to essentially imaginary material; from the intuitive to non-intuitive. It might be no coincidence that multiplication tables lend themselves to chorusing and the consequent risk of humiliation in front of classmates, which in turn leads to an anxiety that hinders learning.

I’m unconvinced that chorusing is an efficient means of teaching all material that needs to be memorised, especially counter-intuitive material. Intensive language courses for paying adults, as found in Israel or Wales, use chorusing, but only briefly; as soon as possible, the target structures are practised in context through tightly-organised activities that use them in communication games. And whereas chorusing material puts participants under stress due to the risk of making a mistake in front of classmates, the use of a topic in a game context generally has the opposite effect; the participant’s feelings of relatedness increase, and anxiety decreases, even if mistakes are made.

Obviously, I am biased in favour of using games for teaching. I worked freelance for many years teaching language (Russia, Japan and Brazil) and, while being aware of the limitations of gamification, still regard it as an efficient means of enabling practice of the target that is both intensive and fun enough for it to be retained.

For most people, maths is hard enough already. The sensible use of games offers a means not of sugaring the pill, but of allowing children to master these foundations, so that the next steps appear gentle slopes rather than sheer cliffs. For many children, the difficulty of memorising times tables triggers a conclusion that something is wrong with oneself; that one is ‘bad at maths’. What I have always hoped to achieve with the Math Tennis app is to delay that moment, or even to cause it never to appear.

The title of this post is a quote from a surgeon I once saw coaching a trainee through a knee arthroscopy. The junior surgeon was struggling to place the camera in the correct area of the knee, and the consultant gave her a look. “If you’re finding this difficult’, he said, and gave a dramatic pause, ‘… it’s because it’s very hard“.


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