Building the Maths Brick Wall – How gaps can form when learning maths

This is an excellent video and article written by my colleague Suzanne Lanzon of Kip McGrath Cambridge South that explains how gaps in your child’s knowledge of maths can hold them back as they progress through school.  Every Kip McGrath teacher understands that these gaps need to be filled so that they have solid foundations in maths and allow them to reach their academic goals.  This is a very well explained article and we would like to thank Suzanne for allowing us to share with you.

I’m sure that most parents understand that the foundations in learning are vitally important to how well their children do at school. In most subjects, learners can begin at almost any level, then learn something else at a different level and there is no real impact on overall understanding. Science for example: I could learn about electricity, forget exactly how it works 3 months later but have no difficulty in then learning about waterproof materials. I did not need to understand the first concept to understand the second. In contrast maths is a subject that builds upon itself, this is what we mean by saying learning maths is like building a brick wall. When building a brick wall, we place brick upon brick and we are certain not to leave any bricks out. In maths, we need to place concept upon concept and we must also make sure we do not leave any concepts out.

We enter Year 1. We are bright eyed and bushy tailed and we love school. Everything at school is ‘playing’. Our teacher is great and we learn so quickly that we constantly surprise our parents with how much we know…but…let me ask you these questions:

  • Did you ever miss a day or more of school?
  • Did you daydream occasionally?
  • Were you ever distracted by your classmates? Were there one or two who seemed to demand more time and attention from the teacher?
  • Are you certain your teacher covered every concept and until you personally understood it fully?

Generally we can assume that we have not understood every single concept that should have been covered in our first year of learning. We would have missed one or two bricks out of the 100 that we needed to lay down that year. This is not the point where we really think twice about there being anything missing. Laying down 99 bricks has been a great effort. Our results show that we are achieving and we are keen for Year 2!

So along comes Year 2. We still enjoy learning although we’re beginning to see the difference between playing activities and learning activities. Playing is just a little bit more fun than learning. We have the next lot of 100 maths ‘bricks’ to place on top of what we learnt last year and mostly, we do that well. There is a slight glitch when we have to place learning ‘bricks’ on top of the one we missed last year. The concept is ever so slightly more difficult we just don’t seem to really ‘get it’. Our teacher has 24 other children in the class. She does well to make sure everyone is on task and everyone is learning but she doesn’t have enough time to cover what we were supposed to understand last year as well as teach this new concept. We’ve understood most of this year’s maths but we now have a wider gap forming on that weaker point of ours. Once again, we get a report card that shows that we are on track. There might be a mention that we need to develop in some areas.

You can see what is happening here. We enter Year 3 and of course, the work gets harder and it gets faster. There are always plenty of other children in our class and only one teacher. Once again, we have a wonderful teacher but she cannot teach me the concepts I missed in Year 1 and 2, Samuel the concepts he missed in Year 1 and 2, Kara, the concepts she missed – as well as make sure we are all learning this year’s work. Through no fault of our own we have a gap in our maths brick wall. By about now, it is starting to show. Every time we attempt to build more difficult concepts on top of the weaker part of our wall, they fall down. It’s frustrating and we begin to think that maybe we’re just not very good at maths. In Years 4 and 5 our gap widens and we lose that wonderful confidence and love of learning we once had. Most of the time we’re doing okay but whenever we try to build on that widening gap we are reminded of how we are failing, how we just can’t seem to keep up.

This is the point when most parents notice that something isn’t quite right. It can be quite painful to realise that our ‘little learner’ has lost some of that shine they used to have; that they are having some difficulties in learning maths. Parents will usually try to help by assisting with homework, buying maths books or asking for more work from the teacher. I am always heartened when I meet great parents such as these! The problem is however, that parents can have no way of knowing exactly where those missing bricks are…or how far back they were missed. This is where we can help. At Kip McGrath Education Cambridge South our tutors specialise in finding exactly where those pesky, missing bricks are and in helping children to understand them once and for all. The learner can then build on that area until they are at the level they need to take on the new work in the classroom. Once students have a solid brick wall up to the level of their class, they are confident enough to put the new information on top and continue the process of building their maths brick wall once again.