When his homework just doesn't add up

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 November, 2012, 3:06pm

My son is in Year 6 and often gets confused with his maths homework. I don't know how to help him. I was never good at maths at school and my son is not confident either. The methods he is taught are different to how I learned and I don't want to confuse him even further.

The good news is that maths teaching these days prepares children for the workplace a great deal more than it used to. There is an emphasis on real-life problem solving rather than manipulating numbers. There is far less ploughing through endless pages of arithmetic practice and solving meaningless problems. In short, maths is now more relevant and fun.

The work involved is also a great deal more challenging for students. Rather than being spoon-fed, children are treated as active thinkers and learners. They are encouraged to have a more risk-taking approach to maths in which estimation and the use of trial-and-error methods are key skills. This approach helps students overcome the fear often instilled in their parents of "making a mistake" or assuming that there is only one "right answer".

Teachers typically use several methods of problem solving and strategies for mental arithmetic. This allows for different learning styles and teaches students to think in different ways, giving them a deeper understanding of maths. Children are more equipped for higher level maths where applying knowledge and using skills are crucial. This, however, does not mean that rote learning is not relevant; times tables, for example.

Children are also less likely to feel the same disconnection between maths and its application in real life that their parents may feel. Studies show that students report greater enthusiasm and motivation than before. Fewer claim to hate maths.

Although I understand that you want to help your son with his maths, by Year 6 the teacher sets homework as much for the students' independence and time management skills as finishing the work itself. Remember, homework is usually reinforcement and practice of what has already been taught. If your son constantly struggles with homework you should consult his teacher. He may not have understood what is being taught and may need reinforcement at school. Maybe his homework tasks need reassessing.

Whatever your own ability it is vital that you emanate a positive attitude. Help your son to understand that maths matters and that he uses it all the time as a natural part of his life. Use everyday opportunities to aid his learning and awareness. A trip to the supermarket is an opportunity to practise skills such as working out totals and multiplying prices, calculating change and working out percentage decreases for special offers.

Getting your son to list all the maths he has used before arriving at school would probably surprise him; telling the time when he wakes up, estimating the passage of time as he gets ready, using different amounts of food and liquid, cutting up food into fractions, checking his timetable, finding the best way to fit things into a bag and the length of a bus journey, for example.

Maths is a key curriculum area and often generates powerful emotions. Most parents are aware that employers are increasingly looking to hire people with a logical brain, rigorous problem-solving skills and lateral thinking. The current education system is busily preparing the new generation for this, not cutting them off from the best jobs.

Julie McGuire teaches at a Hong Kong primary school