Our Readers' Opinions
May 18, 2007
Responding to needs of low achievers in Maths – Part II


EDITOR: Last week I ended by challenging readers to carefully reflect on a question relating to low attainment in mathematics being a cause or an effect. Without attempting to answer the question, perhaps a clearer understanding and appreciation of the fundamental issues surrounding the needs, and feelings of low attainers might be better provoked by the following quotation.{{more}}

“For the majority of young people who don’t succeed mathematics is still felt to be important, but it’s also difficult – impossible so for many – mysterious, meaningless and boring. It is not ‘about’ anything, and it creates feelings of fear, feelings of lack of confidence and, feelings of hatred. For some it even creates feelings of oppression and being dominated by someone, they know not whom…They blame the teachers for never understanding them, they blame the mathematics curriculum for all its irrelevant and mind numbing exercise, and of course they blame the Education System which cheated them” Bishop (1988).

If, therefore, low attainers are to be challenged to raise their standard of achievement; if low attainers are to be motivated to realize their seemingly untapped potential, then it seems necessary that the curriculum be implemented in ways that support the learner in erasing such negative feelings about their school mathematics engagement. In this regard, I suggest an approach geared at building positive dispositions to mathematics learning among all students.

In general, students who possess more positive attitudes towards mathematics tend to achieve more at learning the subject. There is no difference with low attainers. In fact, low attainers stand to benefit more from a focus on positive attitude in the mathematics classroom than any other group of students. It seems easy to understand why. Meaningful mathematics learning is believed to be primarily, about thinking and constructing understanding. It is therefore necessary that as a first step at responding to the needs of low attainers that one seeks to assist these students in building confidence in their ability to do mathematics, as well as their liking for the subject. After all, attitude is everything and affect is an important function in the learning and teaching of mathematics.

Now imagine a situation which reflects a learning environment where students are guided to the experience the mathematic they are doing rather than one of ‘show the student what to do and then give them practice in it’. The emphasis in this proposed shift in approach is to adopt strategies that will provide support to students for them to connect with, communicate and reflect on the mathematics they are learning before they are exposed the written structure of the mathematics. Essentially, when students are so guided to experience and ‘live’ the mathematics, as against simply being exposed to the mere summary of the mathematics (precise written structure) the following benefits are realized.

• Students think about what they are doing for themselves rather than what is being done to them and for them.

• Students construct understanding of concepts by extracting meaning from their engagement and experience, rather than trying to regurgitate their teachings sayings.

In general, the approach that brings about meaningful learning to most students will do for low attainers. There is a difference though. It is this. The way to respond to the needs of low attainers is not simply to cover the same content like the more able students, but at a slower pace. Rather, low attainers should be given equal opportunities to traverse the same mathematical processes (thinking, reasoning, problem solving, etc.) even through less content coverage. The emphasis, therefore, in trying to effectively address the needs of low attainers should be on construction of attitude and individual goals rather than on content coverage and more content coverage, even at a slower pace. In the words of Ollerton & Watson “a good teacher can provide questions, prompts, materials, ideas and resources for any student…”

Holder, Kenneth D