Why All Primary School Teachers
Need Good Basic Maths Skills

See also: Real World Math

The Importance of the Primary School

One of the main causes of poor number skills is the standard of maths teaching in primary / elementary schools.

While there are pockets of excellence to be found, most primary school teachers have a weak understanding of maths themselves, particularly arithmetic. Despite this weakness, they are responsible for introducing children to the subject and so they play a crucial role in forming understanding of maths and attitudes towards it.

Sadly, many children are completely turned off the subject. They learn that they are no good at maths.

It’s not Their Fault

I have much sympathy for the teachers that I am criticising. They are under pressure to get results (for example, as laid down by the UK National Curriculum) so that their school does not suffer in league tables. They may be able to get some help if their school has a good maths coordinator, but mostly they are out of their depth and no-one seems to care.

It is also easy to see how this situation comes about. Young people who are good at maths are more likely to go into numerate professions such as science, engineering or accountancy. If they decide to teach, they are more likely to opt for secondary than primary teaching.

Tricks for Ticks

The result is an emphasis on algorithms - do this, do that and there's the answer - also known as 'tricks for ticks'.

There is no attempt to foster understanding because the teacher often doesn't understand the principles that lie behind the algorithm in the first place. Sometimes the algorithm itself is actually wrong.


I am giving private maths tuition at the moment to a thoughtful and diligent 13 year-old who has had some disastrous maths teaching in his primary school.

He has been taught to do multiplication using a weird variation of the standard layout that doesn't work as soon as you multiply by a number with more than one digit. He has never been taught how to do division at all.

Consequently, he was totally dependent on a calculator.

The Problem with Formal Teaching Methods

A feature of poor primary school teaching is a tendency to teach formal written procedures far too early.

All teachers learn about Piaget’s research and that children’s brains work differently to adults. They know that abstract ideas about the world develop as a result of play and experiment and that it is vital to allow children time to do this. The concept of number arises from activity in the real world. It takes time, patience and practice for this activity to connect to the abstractions of formal arithmetic. If you try to push it too far or too fast, you will cause failure and frustration.

An awful example of this is the obsession with learning multiplication tables as early as possible. Small children are required to learn them whether or not they understand what multiplication is and sometimes before they are secure in counting. What is this weird emphasis on ‘learning your tables’? I am not saying that people do not need to learn them at some point, but in the end there are at most 28 facts about numbers that need to be learnt by heart and there are a lot of patterns that assist the memory. Anyone can learn them provided that they haven’t been taught how frightfully difficult and important it is by attempts to ram them home at far too young an age.

It’s Not You, It’s the Teaching

I strongly believe that very few people are really incapable of understanding basic arithmetic and that understanding, together with a little practice, leads to competence in handling numbers. The chief barrier is that people believe that their difficulties with arithmetic arise because their brains are somehow wired up differently, rather than because they have been badly taught.

It's all About Confidence

I have had many private students, often in the run up to GCSE, who have needed to be taught the basics of arithmetic. It only takes a few sessions and what has been for them a buzzing heap of confusion collapses down into a few orderly ideas. With that new understanding comes what I call the "Gee, I am a swan!" experience. Suddenly, algebra makes sense - after all it is just arithmetic with variables. Despair is replaced with confidence.

So, what a difference it would make if primary school teachers could all be given a fresh understanding of basic numeracy and the confidence that comes with it.

One way forward

I have written down the material that I use in teaching basic numeracy exactly as if I were speaking to a private student. Although it is not the only approach and it is dependent on a reasonable degree of literacy, this seems to have been effective.

Here is an extreme example. One reviewer is a 75 year-old man who had a truly dreadful experience during his schooling in Northern Ireland. Attempts to literally beat maths into him left him with a life-long fear of numbers. Sadly, this is not unusual. Many adults go into a state of panic when confronted by everyday arithmetic. I am pleased to say that my little book has managed to overcome his fear and self-doubt and he is now enthusiastic about maths and wants to learn more.

If you are a primary school teacher with a numeracy problem, please, please, give it a go or find some other way to conquer your difficulties. You owe it to your young students to sort out your own difficulties so that you can give them a good start in numeracy. I assure you, you can do it.

Numbers Explained by Steve Miller

About the Author

Steve Miller has many years experience as a maths teacher and private tutor as well as a software developer and technical author.

He is convinced that it is never too late to learn arithmetic and that anyone can do it if they want to, including you. The key is to make sure that you understand each step.