Introducing basic algebra at 7 years old

In the news today, Prof David Burghes of Plymouth University’s Centre for Innovation in Mathematics Teaching, has argued that the draft primary mathematics curriculum for England should be more demanding. He claims that all children should know their tables up to 10 and be introduced to basic algebra. One other claims Prof Burghes made is that primary teachers need better maths skills and more should be taking AS and A level mathematics. The story can be found here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22892927

While I would hate to criticise someone who works for my own university, I feel that there are some important factors not being considered here.

One of the things that I think Prof Burghes has missed is that algebra can and has been taught in primary schools relatively young already. In fact last year, I taught a class of Year 1 children. While I was teaching addition and subtraction, I used questions with numbers missing, for example: 1 + ( ) = 11. While I did not explicitly mention that this is algebra, we can all see that it is.

Prof Burghes said that the government’s maths curriculum was “on the right track” but said that learning multiplication tables earlier, along with an early introduction of the concepts behind algebra and probability, would help put pupils in England on a par with countries such as Finland, Japan and Singapore, where standards are higher. At the moment these concepts are introduced by the time they leave primary school, which is allowing children to learn other concepts. The abstract nature of algebra will be confusing to younger children who are still developing their understanding of basic mathematics.

I feel that this proposal is pushing too much onto children too early. Not everyone is a higher ability child in maths at that age. It also has the potential to make the gap between the lower ability and higher ability even wider than it can be in a classroom. This could completely demotivate children, which would mean the children’s attitudes towards mathematics will largely be negative. In a time where maths is seen as ‘the elephant in the classroom’ for some children, this is not going to help.

The last claim was that Primary teachers should be taking AS and A level maths. This slightly annoys me, as not a lot of the current A level mathematics is relevant to primary school teaching. I personally only found Statistics to be any real relevance to any primary mathematics I have seen or taught in the past, and seen as Statistics is a small part of the primary curriculum, getting a load of teachers taking it will make very little difference. Also the subject knowledge of maths is taught as part of the teaching degree. It also appears in the QTS skills test, so what difference realistically is doing an A level going to achieve? I don’t see much there.

What do you think? Has Prof Burghes got a point, or has he missed the point? Comment your thoughts.

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