Address misconceptions in maths to avoid 'systematic' errors, says EEF

Teachers should address misconceptions about maths among seven- to 14-year-olds, lest they lead to a “systematic pattern of errors”, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has said.

In its latest guidance, ‘Improving mathematics in key stages 2 and 3, the EEF says that certain misconceptions, such as the assumption that multiplication always produces a larger number, must be “uncovered and addressed”.

For example, although it is accurate that multiplication of numbers greater than one always produces a bigger number, this is not the case when it is applied to numbers less than one.

Teachers are inundated with information about different programmes and training courses

“It is important that misconceptions are uncovered and addressed rather than side-stepped or ignored,” the research says. “Pupils will often defend their misconceptions, especially if they are based on sound, albeit limited, ideas. In this situation, teachers could think about how a misconception might have arisen and explore with pupils the ’partial truth’ that it is built on and the circumstances where it no longer applies.”

Pupils should also master basic mental maths, and “may well have difficulty with more challenging maths later in school” if they do not, the report warns.

Diagrams can also help teachers understand how to add fractions together, something that can ordinarily cause difficulty.

“Getting to grips with basic maths is not just crucial for academic success and future job prospects,” said Kevan Collins, the EEF’s chief executive. “The skills we learnt at school help us with everyday life too. Yet a disadvantaged pupil is still much more likely to leave education without them.

Kevan Collins

“Teachers are inundated with information about different programmes and training courses to help boost the maths skills of their pupils. There are thousands of studies too, most of which are presented in academic papers and journals. It can be difficult to know where to start.”

He said the practical and evidence-based steps in the latest guidance report are “based on the best research available”.

“They’re designed to help schools navigate the wealth of information out there and give all their pupils – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds – the skills they need to succeed,” he added.

The full research can be downloaded here.