Starting at zero

In my very first session with the Mathemateers last week I spotted a significant thing that Jules was doing wrong.

When he counted he did not start at zero.

It seems bizarre doesn’t it, that someone can get to ten and still be unsure how to count.

However I remember a friend I was at school with, who after finishing his degree in politics, confessed to me that whenever he subtracted in his head he was always one out. When I listened to him subtract I could hear that he counted the first number as ‘one’. So if he was doing, say 25- 9 he would count back 25 as one, 24 as two, 23 as three and so on, rather than starting at zero. He didn’t make this error adding and strangely had got all the way through GCSEs, ‘A’ levels and a university degree with this slight impediment to his maths.

My friend never looked back from the revelation I presented to him. A couple of years later he did a masters in Computer Science and now project manages big software design projects in Australia.

I’m not sure, but Jules seems to have had a similar epiphany. He has stood still in maths for a year or so – he should be working at level four, but is struggling to maintain level 3. On Tuesday last week I noticed that when trying to read the time, he counted round in chunks of 5 to what should have been 30, but read out 35. The minute hand you see was on the ‘half-hour’, Jules knew that each digit on the clock face meant 5 minutes, but somehow managed to construe half past 5 as 5:35. He started by counting the ’12’ as 5, the ‘1’ as 10 and so on, rather than starting at zero minutes.

In my pen-portrait of Jules I mentioned this misconception, thinking that I would be spending the next couple of weeks teaching him how to get out of it. But not so. It seems he is out of it…

From then, he hasn’t ¬†looked back. At the weekend he practised 33 different Khan Academy activities and almost doubled his points (he’s been using Khan Academy for nearly 2 years). When he came in this morning he was bursting with confidence and pride and whizzed through the activities I had for him – I’m going to have to pitch things harder tomorrow!

Was this going to happen anyway? Did he just need a small group to express himself in and a trigger for his confidence? Was it just that he was at the end of an achievement plateau and ready to climb another hill? Or was it just a quick pointer that he should start counting at zero?

And I wonder how many children across the country are struggling right now in maths just because they don’t have this basic skill?

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