What is maths?

Jo Boaler

Follow this link to read Chapter 1 of Jo Boaler’s fantastic book, The Elephant in the Classroom: Helping Children Learn & Love Maths, published by Souvenir Press, 2008:


This extract explores ways we can help our children develop understanding and a love of maths as they learn, rather than seeing maths as sets of rules and procedures with little relevance to their real lives.

She makes the argument that in traditional teaching children do not get experiences of real maths, seeing it as lists of rules, procedures and calculations, without making connections, seeing patterns or gaining insight into how it can help them make sense of their world.

I love this quote from Devlin, cited in the book:

Mathematics is not about numbers, but about life. It is about the world in which we live. It is about ideas. And far from being dull and sterile, as it is so often portrayed, it is full of creativity.’

When thinking about our own practice in classrooms, she emphasises the importance of planning opportunities for:

  • Estimating – developing number sense through understanding of numbers, how they are made up and how they work, predicting, solving problems and checking
  • Exploring – providing problems and giving time for children to have a go, try different strategies, reflect and refine their answers, justifying their choice of strategy
  • Collaborating – sharing ideas, strategies and learning from each other
  • Providing challenging and stimulating problems – she quotes Hersh, “It’s the questions that drive mathematics. Solving problems and making up new ones is the essence of mathematical life”
  • Questioning – allowing children the chance to ask their own questions, time to explore and solve these questions and extend their thinking
  • Representing problems visually – using a range of symbols, words, materials, pictures, tables and diagrams allows children to explore new ideas and develop understanding of what they are doing

All practice that is key to using the HNP approach!

This quote from Polya, cited in the book sums this up:

A teacher of mathematics has a great opportunity. If he fills his allotted time with drilling his students in routine operations he kills their interest, hampers their intellectual development, and misuses his opportunity. But if he challenges the curiosity of his students by setting them problems proportionate to their knowledge, and helps them to solve their problems with stimulating questions, he may give them a taste for, and some means of, independent thinking.’xvii (Polya, 1971, v)

I hope you find this extract inspiring – it would be great to hear comments of how this approach has worked in your setting!

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