Monday, 2 February 2009

Back to Basics - Financial Capability Starts Here

While I have a basic competence in Mathematics, passed statistics and even got my Six Sigma 'greenbelt', I've never quite had a 'feel' for it, like some people I know.

In fact, Maths was the one subject at school that annoyed and disappointed me in equal measure (sorry, double that for Physics), as did most of the people who purported to teach it to me. They did little but drone on about their subject, instead of... well, I just never knew how they could've made it interesting. And, like most lawyers I know, I've often flippantly boasted of having 'no head for figures at all' - probably because it sets us apart from accountants... ;-)

However, increasingly aware that this 'phobia' is rather silly, I recently Googled something like "explain mathematics to me now!" and ended up buying a copy of Mathematics Explained for Primary Teachers by Derek Haylock.


Derek patiently explains Maths from the beginning - in words - missing no step in the logic. So one is never left with that "Huh? You lost me" plunge into the chasm of uncertainty so common in Maths classes. While he's very clear on the formal steps required to solve each mathematical riddle, critically for the under-confident, Derek also carefully explains - and firmly validates - all the informal routines that one might go through in an attempt to grapple with a problem. There may be one right answer, but I was stunned to learn there's no "right approach". And what seems an "easy" way for one person is quite likely to look a bit screwy or "wrong" to another who's never had things properly explained. The point is neither deserves a clip over the ear and five minutes facing into a corner of the classroom.

As someone who has taken many apparent slices into the rough before joining the rest of the class on the mathematical green, this was a joy to discover. A great fog of cringing uncertainty is lifting. In fact, reading this book for the first hour did more for me than the 3 hours a week I spent observing dull, well-intentioned people scratching around on blackboards for 12 years.

Of course, the Derek wrote the book because many teachers and potential teachers of Maths suffered the same experience in their Maths classes at school. As a result they won't teach it, or won't teach it very well for lack of confidence in how to explain it to kids who demand greater understanding of the subject. So, increasing their confidence is key to persuading them to educate our kids in a far more effective way. Derek deserves a medal.

While finance is but one application for Maths, one can't help thinking that we would all be much more financially capable if more teachers - and perhaps parents - read Mathematics Explained for Primary Teachers. Did you know, for example, that subtraction is now taught differently, and that parents and grandparents are often, tragically, an unwitting source of confusion as a result?
This is the role of the Personal Finance Education Group, which has been doing great work in this area - arming teachers with the self-confidence to teach Maths in a financial context. Let's hope this also has a broader impact.
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