Going pro: mastering mathematics in the foundation phase at Pro Ed House School

| September 6, 2013 | 0 Comments

By Bernadine Jones

Her classroom is bright with colourful posters depicting shapes, numbers and thinking skills, creating an atmosphere of place of safety and learning.

Sue Gibbings is a mathematics specialist at ISASA member Pro Ed House School, a primary school in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, for students who experience barriers to learning. Many of Pro Ed’s students struggle with numeracy and have little confidence in their abilities. “Many of them are often anxious when approaching maths tasks and have difficulty retaining information.” Her maths strategies are designed to be enquiry-driven, fun and multisensory wherever possible. Pro Ed is working towards becoming a Thinking School,1 and so learning to think both independently and interdependently underpins the entire curriculum.

Problem solving and algebra

Gibbings believes one of the most important aspects of maths is problem solving. Her class is invariably structured towards collaborative work in groups, where talking to each other is essential. For the students who struggle, verbalising their thoughts and social interaction assists their thinking. Habits of Mind2 are highlighted. For example, the habit of listening to one another with understanding and empathy is highlighted in these tasks. Talking through the problems with others aids social interaction and allows students to collaborate with peers at their own level.

Homework tasks encourage children to apply their knowledge and problem-solving abilities to real life. These tasks include questions such as: “How much does a packet of rice weigh? Can rice be bought in other sizes? What are they?”

Gibbings also argues in favour of teaching algebra from the foundation phase.3 Understanding equivalence forms the basis of algebra, and pattern recognition is important too, so that children learn to generalise and make predictions. Gibbings uses the Number Sense workbooks from Aarnout Brombacher & Associates4 in her lessons, as each child has a book directed at their individual level of learning. Each child has an individual plan for their workload, so no two children do the same set of homework. Gibbings suggests that this cuts down on the performance anxiety that many of Pro Ed’s children experience, especially when confronted with maths problems. “I have found that differentiating children’s learning capabilities in small classes allows me to focus on individual children. With larger classes, I suggest ‘group teaching’: the teacher sits on the carpet and rotates working with groups of learners, assigning and checking homework, discussing problems or setting individual tasks for the lesson.”

Numicon for younger learners

For younger children who struggle with conceptualising numbers, Gibbings suggests the tactile Numicon5 system. Children who struggle with forming mental images of numbers find Numicon particularly effective as it aids in pattern recognition – a key element of algebraic thinking. Numicon helps with Gibbing’s classic maths class question: “Do you notice a pattern?” Each student works through a maths problem by picking out the recognisable patterns – this sequencing helps chaotic students work systematically and calmly. Numicon is one such teaching aid that assists in this systematic approach.

Gibbings asks a Grade 1 child to make the number 24 with the Numicon shapes, and within seconds he brings out two blue 10 shapes and one red 4 shape. When asked to make it one less, immediately a green three shape replaces the red four shape. Numicon quickly builds confidence, and it allows young children to interact physically with the breaking down and building up of numbers. Says Gibbings: “I have found that children recognise how numbers are made physically through visual aids. Using counters, buttons, coloured card and straws grouped together in bonds help this process too.”

Multisensory maths and mnemonics

Many of Pro Ed House School’s students struggle with retaining information, and maths lessons are no different. To tackle this difficulty, Gibbings uses a variety of manipulatives to encourage participation and alleviate anxiety towards maths problems. One such strategy, she explains, is to develop songs and plays dedicated to making maths fun and memorable. Gibbing’s maths class recently held a play where each student told the story of a ‘Bond of 10’. The play highlighted the Habit of Mind of finding humour. The giggles and engagement could be heard across the playground! When learning the times tables, the class sings a song of ‘3s’ to the tune of Jingle Bells: “Three six nine, twelve fifteen, eighteen twenty-ooooone, twentyfour, twenty-seven, thirty, now we’re done.” Another child had difficulty remembering the sequence of integers, and came up with this mnemonic: “If a good action happens to a good person, that’s good (a positive plus a positive equals a positive). If a bad action happens to a good person, that’s bad (a negative plus a positive equals a negative), and reciprocally. Finally, if a bad action happens to a bad person, that’s good (a negative plus a negative equals a positive).” Cynical, perhaps, but it worked for the student. These mnemonics help students engage with and react to the maths problems, alleviating anxiety and encouraging retention.

Mathletics makes maths masters!

For older children with access to the internet, Gibbings recommends the interactive Mathletics.6 The teachers at Pro Ed House School monitor each child’s progress on the programme, and the class that has obtained the most certificates in a term receives a trophy. With tangible proof of their success and a bit of healthy competition, children are encouraged in their abilities. Gibbings relates a story of a child who arrived at Pro Ed believing he was ‘stupid’ because he was much older than his peers, and had been teased. Embarking on Mathletics, the student found he could complete tasks and received weekly certificates of his achievements. Through this manifest proof of his ability, he soon began to flourish and enjoy maths. The Senior 2 class at Pro Ed House School recently achieved top honours as they had attained the best Mathletics scores in the country for that week. All at the school are very proud!

Becoming a Thinking School

Throughout the entire curriculum at Pro Ed House School, students are encouraged to approach tasks systematically and thoughtfully. Many children struggle with sequencing and are random in their approach to a task. As Pro Ed is working towards becoming a Thinking School, the curriculum entails a range of learning strategies. Such an example is the acronym KWHL, which gives children a way of approaching a problemsolving task. ‘K’ stands for ‘Know’ – what do I already know about this task? ‘W’ stands for ‘What’ – What do I want to know? ‘H’ is the methodology – ‘How’ will I found out the answer? ‘L’ is the final step, the answer – What have I ‘learned’? Gibbings gives each child in her Maths Lab a card cut-out of KWHL to stick on their desk as a permanent reminder of this sequencing. By concentrating on this problem-solving pattern, maths learners approach tasks in a more ordered fashion.

Pro Ed House School has small classes and an individual learning plan for every child. Those children who need additional support visit Sue’s Maths Lab once or twice a week, where they can receive more intensive instruction in groups not exceeding four students. Much work is done with the use of a variety of manipulatives, while praise and encouragement are key components of building confidence and facilitating learning. Sue recommends using these strategies to change a struggling student into a master mathematician.


1. See, for example, http://www.thinkingschoolsinternational.com/about-us/whatis- a-thinking-school/.

2. See, for example, http://www.instituteforhabitsofmind.com/.

3. The foundation phase lays the groundwork for all formal schooling during Grade R, Grade 1, Grade 2 and Grade 3 in literacy, numeracy and life skills. See, for example, http://www.education.gov.za/.

4. See, for example, http://www.jumpstart.org.za/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id =169&Itemid=152.

5. See, for example, http://www.numicon.com/Index.aspx.

6. See, for example, http://www.mathletics.co.za/.

Category: Spring 2013

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