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  • Writer's pictureAlex Box

Honouring learners as creative sense-makers (not calculators)

I have a colleague who is passionate about re-humanising school education. They have a kinda shocking catch phrase to call out moments of 'teaching' that rob people of opportunities to think:

'It's like getting a dog to do a trick'

Sadly, it rings true. In the context of maths education, many of us remember having to perform the trick of regurgitating maths facts quickly and accurately. No wonder so many of us who pursued teaching carried with us the idea that speed and correctness was a strong sign of mathematical success.

It never quite felt right. Some of us still ran fast fact races in the spare 5 minutes before a bell. But we'd make it opt in for students...

Perhaps you've come across Australian comedian Jimmy Rees. He’s the guy who made the web-series ‘Meanwhile in Australia’, where he plays the role of each Australian state and territory in negotiations about borders, lockdowns and other pandemic-related issues.

Another of Rees’ characters is ‘The Guy Who Decides’; let’s call him ‘The Guy’ for short. He consults ‘Jason’ on various societal implementations - from how different supermarket foods should be packaged, to conducting an electoral campaign, to how various pieces of the imperial measurement system should be expressed.

‘The Lady Who Decides’ has been featured at times too, offering equally creative ideas and mandates. Each skit is a brilliant, observational piece on the ‘way things are’. It’s quite excellent comic relief.

As a (formerly maths-anxious) primary teacher, these works get me thinking of historical examples of school education and how it might be told through a Jimmy Rees skit. For instance, how might one about how to teach maths facts play out?


Jason: Morning Sir. What are your thoughts on how kids should be taught multiplication?

The Guy: Hmmmmm. [He pauses]. I know, get all the kids to line up at the door in pairs and compete against each other. The kid who answers the times table fact first, wins. And their prize is to go out to play. The losing kid has to go to the back of the line and wait for all the other kids ahead of him to get out the door. That should do the job, Jason! We’ll call them… Races! Times Table Races!

Jason: Ugh.. Sir. Don’t you think that approach is a bit…. cruel? We are talking about children here. Not Army Cadets. Plus, how are children expected to just…. know the answer? They aren’t calculators.

The Guy: But we WANT them to be calculators, Jason! Little human calculators running around on two legs, Jason.

Jason: Well I still think we need to think about how they’ll LEARN the times tables, in order to KNOW them Sir.

The Guy: Well of course Jason, I was just getting to that. They’ll learn multiplication facts by doing lots of practice questions, Jason. On a piece of paper. Make that, lots and lots and LOTS of practice questions, Jason. On lots of pieces of paper. We’ll call it...Worksheet Practice!

Jason: Okay… Sir I still can’t see where the teaching comes in. There’s a lot of practice here but no learning here about what multiplication actually means…. Or what it’s for. I mean, what if there are lots of children who are confused, and getting lots of wrong answers in all these Times Table Races and all this Worksheet Practice?

The Guy: Jason, Jason, Jason. Next to every wrong answer, the teacher will put a red cross. And if a kid gets more than ...hmmmm [thinking face].... 10 wrong answers, they’ll get what’s called ‘a low score’ and they’ll get extra homework to do.

Jason: [reluctantly] Okay Sir. What will the homework be?

The Guy: More Worksheet Practice of course, Jason! What else? Now, is that all? I’m late for my meeting.

Jason: Well, I don’t feel very good about this Sir. It just doesn’t feel like an appropriate way to teach kids. How do you know this is what’s best for kids?

The Guy: [defensively] I was a student once. I know how education works. Shut up, Jason. Don’t question my authority.

Jason: [dejectedly] Yes Sir. Okay Sir…


For many the anecdotes are worse. I have friends who suffered physical violence in school for incorrect answers in the seemingly endless 'practice' quizzes.

Thankfully (!) a lot has changed. More and more, mathematics is being treated in schools as a discipline where logic meets creativity. More and more, educators and learners are having conversations about how different strategies for solving arithmetic problems (or often, as the case may be, don't work).

There's a creativity and joy in solving computation problems. An emphasis on speed has been replaced with an emphasis on sense-making, and a trust that speediness will develop over time (when give the time and space to do so).

Students are taking control and pursuing different pathways when exploring what numbers mean. They're doing this also when approaching more complex problems.

There's a lot of great work being done in the maths education space to support change in the way we see, and experience, maths at school. We know more than ever before about how the brain learns and there is more awareness about what's important for mathematical success.

But there's a long way to go until every sees themselves as mathematically capable and creative.

I've spent almost 6 years in roles that allow rigorous professional learning in this particular space. Every day I speak to time poor educators and maths-scarred members of the community who continue to suffer in a system where mathematical pain and age-old perspectives live on.

There are lots of excellent maths resources and teaching books available which work to transform the maths learning experience. I own a lot of them. And am in a perpetual state of drawing from these various great works to build a big picture of what fostering numeracy and teaching maths might look like over the school year.

I'm still very much a primary generalist at heart so integrating the social-emotional, literacy and authentic audiences with numeracy and maths has become the goal.

At the moment, what I'm working on is a very short, practical book focussed on how to build fact fluency in ways that are playful, not painful. It'll be written for predominantly primary educators but in a way that will also be accessible to members of the wider community.

The working title is:

'Nurturing number sense: honouring the diversity and creativity of all learners'

It's due for release in 2023 and will:

  • Confront damaging myths that get in the way of developing fact fluency

  • Perspectives from former maths sufferers about how they discovered that the problem wasn't them!

  • Share playful, meaningful and relevant ways for learning mathematical facts

  • Spotlight ideas from inspiring educators specialising in this area

  • Links to online places to get more supporting info and inspo

If this sounds useful to you, I'd love to know:

Is there something in particular you'd like to see addressed or included in this book?

Feel free to comment below.

Alternatively, sign up to be notified of the book release date here and include a private note.



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