‘Practice makes perfect!’ It must be one of the most irritating things that was said to me as a child. But, in my view, never has an idiom been so true. I know of a CEO who has a golf lesson every fortnight with a top coach. He pays almost £200 per hour. He hasn’t improved his handicap at all over the last year. Why? Because between his lessons, he couldn’t find time to practice. The same with the numerous kids who have piano lessons every week.
The ones who move through the grades aren’t the ones who have the best teachers. It’s not necessarily even the most gifted. It’s the ones who put in their daily practice. Our experience as teachers and educators has taught us that the quality of practice in maths is far more important to the learning process than the quality of explanation. However elegantly explained, a concept will not be remembered unless it is practised sufficiently. Kids learn through doing.
We define good quality practice as being regular (ideally daily), engaging (touchscreens helps here!) and at the level most appropriate for the individual. The latter is vital – most children, when faced with a choice of tasks, will choose not what is most appropriate for them, but what will give them the highest reward for the minimum effort. When it comes to the core basics of maths, regular practice is the absolute key to improvement.
We can tinker with the Framework and the National Curriculum; we can try to employ the best graduates as teachers. But the simplest way to raise standards in maths would be to give children more opportunities to practice. In the UK’s quest to understand why Shanghai leads the way on the PISA tables, this has been one of the key findings: children in Shanghai spend more hours doing maths on a weekly basis than their counterparts in the UK.
A final warning: as with anything, if you don’t practice at all, you actually get worse at maths. Children regress more in maths than any other subject over the summer break – mainly because opportunities to practice are not so obviously available in everyday life as with reading and writing. Seeking out those opportunities, be it puzzle books, sudoko or DoodleMaths, is a great way to reverse this drop.