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Episode 97: The importance of Early Years Maths and how Maths — No Problem! Foundations can set pupils on the right path

Comparing cakes, David Attenborough, and more. In this episode, Andy, Robin and Adam share why the right Early Years teaching is so important. Are teachers equipped well enough? Why should maths start at the specific age it does? Plus, Adam speaks on how difficult early misconceptions can be to address at a later age.

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Profile of Andy Psarianos expert educational podcaster.

Andy Psarianos


Andy was one of the first to bring maths mastery to the UK as the founder and CEO of the independent publisher: Maths — No Problem! Since then, he’s continued to create innovative education products as Chairman of Fig Leaf Group. He’s won more than a few awards, helped schools all over the world raise attainment levels, and continues to build an inclusive, supportive education community.
Profile of Adam Gifford expert educational podcaster.

Adam Gifford

In a past life, Adam was a headteacher, and the first Primary Maths Specialist Leader in Education in the UK. He led the NW1 Maths Hub’s delivery of NCETM’s Professional Development Lead Support Programme before taking on his current role of Maths Subject Specialist at Maths — No Problem!
Profile of Robin Potter expert educational podcaster.

Robin Potter

Robin comes to the podcast with a global perspective on parenting and children’s education. She’s lived in ten different countries and her children attended school in six of them. She has been a guest speaker at international conferences, sharing her graduate research on the community benefits of using forests for wellness. Currently, you’ll find Robin collaborating with colleagues and customers in her role as Head of Community Engagement at Fig Leaf Group, parent company of Maths — No Problem!

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Podcast Transcription

Andy Psarianos

Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.

Robin Potter

Hi, I'm Robin Potter.

Adam Gifford

Hi, Adam Gifford.

Andy Psarianos

This is the School of School Podcast.

Welcome to the School of School Podcast.

Adam Gifford

Are you an early years teacher struggling with lack of support for lesson planning? Foundations can help. Foundations is the new reception programme from Maths — No Problem! It's a complete reception package with workbook journals, picture books, and online teacher guides all in one place. Visit today to learn more.

Andy Psarianos

Okay, welcome back everyone for another episode of the School of School Podcast. We're here with the regular crew. We've got Adam. Say hi, Adam.

Adam Gifford

How you doing, Andy?

Andy Psarianos

Yeah, really good. Robin?

Robin Potter

Hello. Hello. How is everyone?

Andy Psarianos

Yeah, well I'm great. I hope you guys are great as well. So today we're going to talk about the importance of early years maths and how the Maths — No Problem! Foundations programme can help set pupils on the right path. So before we get into what the Maths — No Problem! Foundations programme is, let's maybe talk about why we feel or why in general everybody feels or should feel that early years, and by early years we're talking about children, preschool children. So before they start their formal education in year one or grade one. Why is that period so important? Look, Adam, you've run schools. Why don't you start us off on that one?

Adam Gifford

I think something really simple to think about is you think about learning anything. If you don't get the basics right at the beginning, you're in trouble for the rest of your learning and it either slows that learning down or you reach a stage where it makes learning something near impossible. I think that implies to learning absolutely anything. It's utterly true of maths.

So I think that these early ideas are so fundamental to children's success, the importance can't be overstated enough. The time that's given, if you look at the programme, and I imagine this to be true of most schooling systems in the world, if you look at the curriculum that's given to, I use the description Andy used about preschool children before year one, that formal schooling, it's not a massive list. We're not trying to do a lot, but the time's given because of the importance of what we have to do. We must use that time in order to embed these early ideas to set people up.

The last thing I'll say on the flip side of this is, I've done a lot of work around say diagnostic interviews with children that have problems both in primary school, secondary school, and beyond in the UK to sixth form colleges. I've done hundreds of these. Okay? So I reckon you could probably count on one hand the children who fit into one group. The rest of them, it's the early ideas that they're missing.

They've struggled through primary school mathematics, more than struggled through secondary school mathematics, and at the first chance they get they drop maths. The impact that it can have on them, so applying for apprenticeships, you've got to have basic maths. It's a nightmare for these kids.

So that goes to show what happens when we don't get these early ideas right. I think it's as simple as that. Learning anything you will learn so much better. You will learn at a pace that's considered the right pace and you will access new learning forever if you continue to get these basics right. Yeah, that's my feeling on it.

Robin Potter

I just have a question for you both because I know in terms of Maths — No Problem! our programme for them starts when they are in the early years. So I guess a couple of things. One would be, how do we come to the conclusion that that was important and that was the place to start? Because so many schools, or at least when I think back of my own education and how even with my children, they really didn't start learning much math until they were about five, I'm guessing. So what is it about our programme that we realised that there was a need to start in the early years?

Andy Psarianos

I suppose there's a couple of things there to unpick and I mean it depends how heavy we want to get into it, but ultimately mathematical thinking is not any different than any other thinking. That's part of the challenge. By that what I mean is that mathematics is a language that the children need to learn just like they need to learn whatever their native language is. The challenges are the same.

It's understanding what the vocabulary is, what their parameters are and those kinds of things. That's really important in the early years. They just tend to be a little bit more, shall we say, technical for mathematics than they are for language. So they may be easier to categorise. As far as a learning structure goes, it's the same thing.

Kids are born not knowing language, as far as I know anyway. Maybe I might be wrong on that. We keep discovering stuff all the time that we didn't know. As far as I know, kids don't understand what you're saying when they're born. They just kind of look at you and eventually they assimilate enough information that they can start generalising it and making sense of it. It's the same thing for mathematics.

I think the challenge is really difficult to understand what it's like not knowing the most basic thing. The difference about mathematics I think is that it's embedded in logic. I'm just riffing here. I don't really know. I'm not an expert in this any more than anybody else. I guess what I'm trying to say is, is that because mathematics is embedded in logic, logic seems to be something intrinsic in people. People just seem to be able to do logic. It's part of the evolution has brought us to a point where we can reason and do logic. So what we're trying to do is put some kind of structure around it and some kind of vocabulary around it.

I think Adam kind of nailed it right away because we know that if they don't get those fundamental ideas right before they start formal school, then they're going to struggle for a long time. It's not immediately apparent, but there's some real kind of, sometimes the jargon is pre numeracy skills. What do you need to be able to do so that you can count or so that you can understand that number might be represented in different ways? Or that geometry or sets, all these kinds of underlying mathematical principles, what do you need to know before you can even understand that stuff? That's usually where we want to start. Those skills don't appear often, don't appear like mathematics. So yeah, of course counting is an obvious one.

You want kids to be able to count. Counting is a funny one because often you'll hear us talk about rote is not necessarily the best way to learn, but some things you can only learn by rote. So counting, counting from zero to a hundred or one to a hundred is learned by rote. It's just a bunch of sounds and you need to know which one comes after which one. Same with the symbols. You need to through mere repetition, remember what symbol represents the number four, let's say. So those things are learned by rote and they play a very important part in the early years, knowing those things. That's not actually mathematics. That's just remembering stuff.

The important things are things like being able to say, okay, I've got these things. Some of them are big, some of them are small, some of them are red, some of them are blue. Some of the red things are big and small. Some of the blue things are big and small. Can I categorise them in those ways? So can I say these things are big, these things are small? Some of the big things are red and blue, some small things are red and blue. Can you categorise things in different ways? Those are mathematical ways of thinking, but that doesn't look like math.

Adam Gifford

I think I'm going to jump in. The other thing, and it follows on from what Andy's just said, is I think that there's two parts to it as well that form a need is one, is to be able to see the world mathematically. That's not just the children. It's the adults in the room as well because if we know what the maths looks like in an early years environment, which Andy said can take all sorts of different shapes and sizes, then we can pick up on it and ask the right questions to deepen an understanding or to bring an understanding on. Or to identify when an understanding or something that they're learning has not been understood.

That's a real skill. That's a really tricky thing to do, to see the world mathematically because not all of us are completely aware of what we are looking at and how it can relate to a mathematical idea, the earliest mathematical ideas. I think the second thing is what structures can we provide the children and the adults to support these ideas? Some structures work better than others. So those two things, because these ideas, even though they're the earliest ones, they're not easy.

So you can't see this, or none of the listeners can see this, but I've got some shelves above me and there's bits and pieces on, I can look at that mathematically in a million different ways. I could spend all day looking at it, come up with all sorts of different things, whether it's angles or numbers or doesn't matter. I'm able to do that.

So if children are working on something, they're doing something, we could ask a single question that might develop a mathematical idea and allow that child to relate what they've learned and apply it to something else to generalise and build their own understanding of it through play, through exploration. That's how they're going to see the world mathematically. Of course, at times there's going to be support that's needed.

I think we cannot, and we should never assume that us as adults can go in and think that we fully understand these early ideas just because they're simple. Like counting to 10, all of us will do it in our sleep forever and a day till our final day. We'll never forget to count 10. They're not easy. The application of it and supporting a four-year-old to be able to use that at their leisure, just to pick out four somewhere. Oh, that's four apples in a tree, whatever it might be. It doesn't matter. That's not just going to happen just because they're in an educational environment.

So I think those two things form the basis of, yeah, we have to support early years practitioners in order to support the children because it's not easy. That's the mistake that sometimes from outside can be seen that these early ideas are easy.

Andy Psarianos

Yeah, and there's a lot of conflicting ideas in mathematics which aren't necessarily when you know them, they're not necessarily obvious because you just take it for granted. Oh yeah, of course. Well, in that instance it means this. If you think of the number four, you could say, okay, well, "Hey, class, today we're going to work on the number four," which is something you might do with a bunch of four-year-olds. They're going to work on the number four.

Well, it's hard for a parent to imagine how you might spend an entire day, an entire lesson on just the number four. That seems like an absurd concept. Actually four can be so many different things and it can be represented in so many different ways. That's the bit I think that's hard for a lot of people to understand is how much attention needs to go to what is seemingly the most trivial and obvious thing in mathematics?

Nevermind things like the idea that four could be, it could be four objects, or it could be the fourth object. Like let's say in a race I came fourth. Well, so just to give you an idea of where mathematics can get really complicated for little children, you could say, I have four, let's say pencils. That's more, that's greater than three pencils. That's okay. That's easy to understand.

I came fourth in the race isn't greater than coming third in the race. So now all of a sudden four and three have a different relationship depending on the context. You don't get on the podium for being fourth. So I'm not trying to make this a competition, but those are concepts that are actually quite difficult. There's paradoxes in there.

Adam Gifford

I think the thing is if I can just jump in real quickly and then you carry on, is that you've just highlighted the importance of not knowing all of this as the limiting factor. It comes back to your question, Robin, about why. Why invest the time to make a programme like Foundations is if we don't have that understanding and knowledge, how can we support children through it?

Because we must, as adults, as educators, we must see the world mathematically because we do not know, especially in an environment like the early years where a lot of learning is through play, through exploration as it should be. It shouldn't just stop at the early years. If we don't pick up on those opportunities, so just drop the right question at the right time. If we can't see that, if we can't see, or if a child's going down the wrong path with something and their understanding's not quite right, they've got a misconception about something, then it's really important that we are supporting practitioners to identify these things.

The last thing I'll say, and I think this is, again, what I've found talking in depth sort of one to one with children who have struggled with maths. I remember watching a documentary, let's just say David Attenborough for argument's sake, and it was about a bird. They lay their eggs and the chick comes out and whatever the chick sees first, that's their parent. Doesn't matter how long. So if they see a dog or whatever, the dog's going to be, that's the parent for life.

It's really interesting when you hear some children talk about their misconceptions, it's almost the same thing. It's like once you embed that misconception really early in the piece, it's really hard to shake. If we don't pick up on those things early and we don't see that there's a misconception in the context of their classroom, which might be far more free flowing, it might not be, like the mathematical opportunities are going to happen from nine till three, then it's going to grow roots. That's going to be really hard to then address later.

We may not have the same opportunities to address it later. So I think that the lens that we have to look through as practitioners, I need all the support that I can get to ensure that I'm able to assess it and then do something about it. Either move them on or help them to understand this idea.

Andy Psarianos

To give a practical example. If we go back to our four and three example. If it never, ever is introduced to you in any kind of way or ever occurs to you that four is not always greater than three, that you just associate only this linear concept of mathematics where four is always greater than three, then when you get to something like fractions, it's really, really difficult for a child to come to terms with the fact that one-fourth or one-quarter of something is less than one-third of something.

So there the problems start. The problems start because now they've formulated this misconception in their idea that four has to represent more than three, and they're stuck with that idea and they've reinforced it over and over and over and over again. Now they're stuck with that idea. Now someone's proposing some completely conflicting counterintuitive idea to their current schema of how mathematics works, but they don't do it well enough. There the problems start. That's it. That the problem starts there.

Often those children never recover because they never get diagnosed properly. That's the issue. The teachers don't maybe even know that that could be an issue or that if it is an issue, what to do about it because it's pretty complex at that point. There becomes a problem. Those are the kids that then struggle forever. It happens because they didn't get introduced to a concept when they were four years old.

Robin Potter

So that brings me around to the question about from the teacher's perspective. Are the teachers for early years coming in with the tools already learned through their education? Learning to become a teacher, they go into the early years classroom, are they prepared to introduce these concepts or no?

Andy Psarianos

No. Not at all. No. No, we don't teach them. We don't train them for this. We train them on other things. There's not enough time. They don't have enough professional development time to learn this stuff. So as a school, you're then faced with, do I leave this to chance and hope that somehow these ideas are going to get developed properly? Because even as a member of the senior leadership team, you might not even know that this is an issue.

So do I leave this to chance and just let the teachers do the best that they can and they're good people and they want to do a great job, and I just going to let them do the best they can and hope that it works out? Or am I going to use something in the classroom that knows these things are issues? So then here we get around to what is the Maths — No Problem! Foundations programme?

Well, the Maths — No Problem! Foundations programme is a programme that's taken into account all these things, all the things that children need to understand and learn before they start formal school so that they don't run into those roadblocks later on. That's what it is. We do it through a very empathetic, childlike learning process, through stories where we talk and we tell a story because children love stories and they get embedded. We have these wonderful stories written by Allan Hermanson, which are just phenomenal stories, and they captivate children.

We've illustrated the books in such a way that we can break out of that story and say, "Okay, hey, look at these cakes. Which one is bigger?" Well, this one's taller and this one's fatter. How do I know which one's bigger? Look at the tiles along the wall, how are they organised? We can dive into those things and help children see and recognise patterns and generalise ideas, because there's a lot of things. We just talked about very surface things like counting and ordinal numbers, but there's lots of things in mathematics.

There's volume and capacity, there's measures, there's all these things are accommodated for in the Foundation series. Geometry, everything. So that they come out, if they go through this programme, they will have had a chance to experience these ideas, these concepts, the way they need to so that they're prepared later. We've put the hooks down for them to come and hang their coats on, if that makes sense, later on.

Adam Gifford

If I could just jump in and just say one more thing is that the ideas are coupled with the representations and the supports that are needed to embed that idea. That's not just on the day you're teaching it because what teachers need at their fingertips is that three months down the track, a conversation or a question with a child and they come up with a misconception, you must address it there and then. If you're not sure what to do or you don't have those supports or those structures in your head and at your fingertips, you're stuck. You can't help that child immediately, which is so important.

So I think that that's the other thing that the programme gives to the practitioners in the early years is one, the questions that you can ask to assess at any point on any given day in the year, and two, how to address and move them on at any point in any given day. Once you know all of those things, it makes you a really powerful teacher and you're able to support so much better. That's what we need to be able to do to jump because of the nature of the early years, we must be able to jump and respond at the time that we are able to assess. We never know when that's going to happen in the early years.

So to go into that unprepared and without those questions and being able to respond in a way that's supportive, we're not doing the children any favours. So having those things that, as Andy said, we don't receive that during training. It takes a long time to learn, but having them as a programme in front of you with the links to the mathematical ideas, you're going to go a long way to be able to support those children in a way that's really productive and is good for them. It sets them up to enjoy mathematics forever, not just for at school, but forever.

Robin Potter

Good place to end. Thanks so much, everyone.

Andy Psarianos

Thank you for joining us on The School of School Podcast.

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