Numeracy stifles creativity: creativity develops maths.

I was struck by a thought a few days ago. It was a thought that linked a 20-year old memory to the tone of voice of a speaker at a conference. The speaker was urgent yet determined, edgy even. The memory was calm and confident. It was the sharp contrast between the two, both of which hung on the same theme – creativity, which made me want to investigate further.

The memory said, ‘the British education is the best in the world for developing creativity’. I don’t remember exactly who’d said that to me, but it was something that rang true at the time. Now it might be that the memory is skewed. It might have been closer to ‘the British education system is the best in the world for creating graduates who are creative’ – I recognize that this is a long way from saying that the British education system is the best in the world for developing creativity in all students. However it is one of those memories that have entered my psyche – I’m part of an education system that is good at creativity.

The speaker was edgy because the future for schools which have been recognized as creative is uncertain. Funding for the main government body (creative partnerships) which funds such schools and programmes (like the Change School Programme and the Enquiry programme) is uncertain. This is partly due to the impending election in the UK and also the effect of a massive national debt on future public spending.

The thought that linked the memory to the speaker made me suddenly realize that we’re struggling to develop creativity in our schools, when in the past (over 20 years ago) we were proud of the creative students we produced. I’d like to point out that these are massive assumptions on my part, but nevertheless it made me want to investigate a little further.

What has changed over the last twenty years? Well the National Curriculum for one. And with it all those strategies, revisions of strategies, the inception of Ofsted and its subsequent changes, SATs and league tables. And all manner of other stuff.

It’s well beyond me to write about what’s gone wrong with the whole of creativity in the whole of the curriculum, but I can make some pointers about maths.

For a start the word numeracy didn’t use to exist. Maths has become about making students numerate – this is a commendable goal, but I wonder if in trying to achieve the targets of making more children achieve a certain level of numeracy we’ve actually taken the fun out of maths. It could certainly be argued that maths teaching in ‘the old days’ was failing many people, but the prescriptive nature of the numeracy strategy has not necessarily achieved the desired results. To find out more I had to read some articles from a book: ‘Teaching and learning early number’ 2nd edition edited by Ian Thompson – I found chapters 1, 3 and 16 the most enlightening.

The NNS (National Numeracy Strategy) in 1999 moved the focus from mathematical application to arithmetic skills. Strategy advice stated that there should be a high proportion of work with the whole class. A significant influence (according to Aubrey and Dormaz 2008) was Chris Woodhead, then chief inspector who wanted to reduce the wide range of attainment by structuring learning tasks on the basis of what children have in common. This actually had the contrary effect – the middle 50% enjoyed an attainment gain of just over 3% (3% being equivalent to about 3 months), the higher achievers made a small improvement, whereas the lowest 10% actually suffered a decline.

Those early years of the NNS were marked by both:

  • considerable disparity in teaching practice across teachers and schools; and
  • concerns of teacher overload, pressure for acquiescence and undue stress that results in a culture of compliance.

It is small wonder that not all schools were able to equally embrace the Excellence and Enjoyment document – a document with a large emphasis on cultivating creativity within children. It’s like someone realised that we were losing our UK creativity edge and their most creative solution was to write it down on lots of pieces of paper (that’s a bit unfair – I do remember there were videos in the Excellence and Enjoyment pack)

It was against this backdrop of ‘pedagogical prescription’ (Alexander 2004 – I love that phrase!) that the government published the Excellence and Enjoyment document. While this document stated that ‘the NLS and NNS, though they are strongly supported, are not statutory… OFSTED will recognise and welcome good practice… Our aim is to encourage all schools to… take control of their curriculum and be innovative.’

This is an interesting quote – it takes a lot of good thinking, hard work and determination to take control of your curriculum and be innovative with it when you’ve spent 10 years not innovating – this applies on the level of the child, the teacher or indeed the whole school

Meanwhile in the very bedrock of creativity, the foundation stage, there has been some disappointing guidance for the development of maths. DFES 2007 emphasised the need for children to learn mathematics through child-initiated activities in their own play. Not only do I consider this to be a bad plan for teaching early maths skills, but also it’s a bad plan for developing creativity – young children need adult support to develop their play – to make it meaningful, evaluate it and sometimes even to initiate it.

And it flies in the face of Anthony and Walshaw (2007) who say: ‘Spontaneous free play (or child initiated play), while potentially rich in mathematics, is not sufficient to provide mathematical experiences for young children.’ In addition, Siraj-Blatchford et al 2002 find that effective early maths gains happen when adults actively teach maths focused small group activities. Thankfully, the Williams review of the maths curriculum recommends direct teaching of mathematical skills and knowledge in meaningful contexts and opportunities for open-ended discussions of solutions, explorations of reasoning and mathematical logic. This sounds to me the kind of approach that will also develop creativity within children.

In fact, Fawcett (2002) argues that children are likely to be creative when they:

  • show curiosity;
  • use ideas and experiences;
  • make new connections through play;
  • evaluate the process.

I would imagine that the reception teacher who takes this approach will have great success in not only developing the creativity of the children, but also in teaching early skills in all areas, including mathematics.

In conclusion, I’m convinced that the imposition of a national numeracy strategy, for all its (sometimes debatable) gains in maths has stifled creativity , even if for the very reason that it has stopped teachers and schools innovating and reduced them to ‘deliverers’ – the post men of the National Curriculum.

My hope is that, with the Williams Review and the new curriculum starting in 2011, both of which have a clear focus on developing creativity, the processes needed to cultivate creativity in children will be the same processes that develop maths.


2 thoughts on “Numeracy stifles creativity: creativity develops maths.”

  1. Arthur has just started complaining about school being boring and ‘hating’ numeracy, just when build up to SATs starting. Even with more promising aspects of new curriculum, and clear ‘skills’ rather than ‘knowledge’ movement in education globally, as long as we have streaming, SATS, all the exams and end outcomes for learners based on knowledge acquisition, then creativity and other positive parts of curriculum will be secondary to tests (targets and forms) and other non-creative non child-centred aspects of schooling.Like the blog

  2. I believe the most important part of creativity that affects maths is flexibility, however, I don’t know quite how to define flexibility within the framework the 9-fold aspects of creativity designed by Creative Partnerships. A ‘creative’ mathematician (to be differentiated from a creative accountant) can see the big picture to a problem and chose the most elegant solution. Prescriptive methods and knowledge based curriculum lead children away from seeing the big picture when they are presented with a problem.The problem with SATs in this case is that they provide a secure way of assessing children that teachers can rely on – it is a shortcut to really knowing the child and places assessment above the child at the heart of education. The problem with this problem is that places that have abandoned SATs (like Wales) have seen a significant increase in teacher workload…

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