How To Sabotage Your Own Policy Part 2May 26, 2014
In the autumn half term I went to a meeting at the DfE about the new curriculum. I was broadly happy to endorse the emphasis on fluency that has now become a major part of the curriculum. I was surprised to learn at that meeting that NCETM were in charge of rolling out the new primary school maths curriculum, but at the time I couldn’t recall much about the organisation so didn’t criticise this. I expressed my concern to Liz Truss, the schools minister, that OFSTED might well be a problem given that they have in the past attempted to redefine “fluency” to mean something other than the fluent recall of basic number facts and methods and also expressed my view that use of mental tests had been the most effective method of encouraging schools to teach fluency.
Later, I looked into NCETM in more detail and wrote a blogpost entitled How To Sabotage Your Own Policy explaining why fluency was under threat due to how policy was being implemented.
Firstly, I pointed out what was at the heart of the debate:
Roughly speaking, the tensions are between those who emphasise the procedures (both written and mental) and those who emphasise applications in context and the ability to talk about maths. In the most recent versions of the debate that I have encountered the former would claim that they are aiming for fluency and the latter would claim that they are aiming for conceptual understanding. Neither would claim not to be pursuing the other’s goal; those emphasising fluency would claim it leads to greater understanding and those emphasising conceptual understanding would claim it leads to greater fluency. Ultimately, both sides would say you have to teach both fluency and conceptual understanding, but the choice of which to emphasise will have a huge impact on teaching methods. The more you emphasise fluency, the more you will spend time on deliberate practice and relying on explanations, rather than “discovery” to result in understanding. The more you emphasise conceptual understanding, the more time you will spend using card sorts and cuisenare rods, having discussions, trying to learn maths from problem-solving and outsourcing calculations to calculators. It is best described as a spectrum rather than a dichotomy, with only the most extreme of the advocates of conceptual understanding saying kids don’t need times tables and only the most extreme (or possibly those who don’t understand the word “rote”) saying kids should learn procedures without understanding them.
I then repeated the details of OFSTED’s record on opposing fluency in favour of conceptual understanding. I also identified evidence that NCETM could not be trusted on this both in their past record and in what they were then doing.
These fears seem to have been correct, but perhaps what is more surprising is the extent to which the DfE don’t seem to care. I have just seen the following video from NCETM tweeted by the DfE twitter account @educationgovuk:
This is an absolute classic of the “redefining/sidelining fluency” genre.
- The claim that people “misunderstand fluency” by not realising that it is “much more about having number awareness” than just recalling facts;
- The claim that “you can’t do maths unless you talk maths”;
- “support for thinking skills”;
- “using representations to help children sense-make”;
- “Fluency is not about doing endless worksheets”;
- The claim that fluency comes from “using representations” and comes with understanding and making connections.
This is the exact same trick OFSTED pulled. The people who are meant to be encouraging fluency are actually talking about the very things, conceptual understanding and problem-solving, which were used as excuses to sideline fluency in the first place. As I said in my previous post, nobody objects to students understanding what they are doing or solving problems, but the issue here is whether you teach fluency and it leads to understanding or teach understanding (usually with problem-solving and props) and it leads to fluency. If it is the latter, then the same old ideas that have been pushed for the last decade (i.e. since the National Numeracy Strategy was abandoned) will continue to ensure that year 7s will continue to arrive in secondary education without fluency with basic number facts. The irony being that this is being done by the very group that was meant to be helping schools move to a curriculum that had a greater emphasis on fluency.