Have we got it wrong about why children fail at mathematics?

Bristol, England
Raised of $4,000 Goal
Ended on 1/07/17
Campaign Ended
  • $1,394
  • 35%
  • Finished
    on 1/07/17

About This Project

Up to 25% of students in the UK are not functional in maths by age 16 (PISA, 2016). Folklore would say this is because maths is so abstract. This project asks: what if that idea is wrong? After all, children often live in abstract, imaginative worlds. We will be developing approaches to teaching early number that emphasise the role of pattern, imagination, symbol and creativity. Our aim is for all students to reach age expected levels of mathematics.

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What is the context of this research?

Recent work in neuroscience and early number learning (Lyons and Beilock, 2013) suggests that sophisticated number sense relies on making connections from one number symbol to another number symbol and not linking number symbols to objects.

Yet the primary number curriculum in the early years almost exclusively emphasises the link between numbers and objects.

Our starting point is the possibility that there may be significant gains in adopting a more balanced approach to learning number, where links between number symbols (e.g., 56 to 57 to 58) are worked on alongside links to objects. We use creative activities, fostering abstract, symbol-symbol links between numbers - for all children.

This work extends a six-year collaboration between Alf Coles and the charity "5x5x5=creativity".

What is the significance of this project?

This project is particularly concerned with those students who under-achieve in mathematics. Currently, if children begin to fall behind their peers they are generally offered more and more concrete representations of number to work with. Emphasising the concrete may be reinforcing the very way of thinking about number (as exclusively linked to objects) that they need to move away from if they are to succeed in mathematics.

Our early results suggests that children are fascinated with big numbers and with exploring relationships between number. If we can demonstrate that these explorations lead to children developing a strong number sense then our project will put into question assumptions about learning number that are pervasive across the world.

What are the goals of the project?

Our project has three related aims. The first is to observe number development in 1st and 2nd grade classes that have adopted our innovative approach to learning mathematics. Children will also be assessed using standardised tests.

Our second aim is to develop a website of support materials to support other teachers and schools wanting to explore alternative approaches to learning number.

And, the third aim is to learn more about what support is needed for teachers wanting to adopt new practices.

The presence of a research assistant to document the work taking place in schools and in reflection meetings is essential in terms of meeting each of these aims.


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In order to complete the project, we need funding for a research assistant in the project classrooms. The research assistant will document activities, record the progress and learning of the children and make available to other teachers materials and support via a project website that we will create. We will need some funding to pay for development costs of the website in order to make it easily navigable and to display our materials in a manner that will be useable for other teachers.

Endorsed by

I am really excited about this research project. It builds on many years research with Alf and Katherine working with 5x5x5=creativity. Becoming a mathematician, exploring links through reasoning, problem solving and pattern spotting are key themes that will inform the development of this research. This next phase will establish a new way of thinking about and understanding why so many children fail at mathematics and what can be done about it.

Meet the Team

Alf Coles
Alf Coles

Team Bio

The project will be carried out by Alf Coles and Katherine Evans. Alf has been working with primary schools for the last six years with 5x5x5=creativity, developing the alternative approach being trialled in this project. Katherine has strong links to 5x5x5=creativity also and is highly skilled at documentation and processes of observing and analysing children and adults.

Alf Coles

Alf works at the University of Bristol. He brings 17 years of experience working in schools and 6 years in University working with teachers. He has been engaged in research for the last 20 years.

Lab Notes

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Project Backers

  • 17Backers
  • 35%Funded
  • $1,394Total Donations
  • $82.00Average Donation
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