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22 May 2024

Making maths fun again

Making maths fun again
Worldwide, students’ maths skills are plummeting. The leaders of the transformative maths training programme Everybody Counts explain what’s behind this numerical nosedive, and how we can fix it.

Mathematics is notorious for evoking feelings of dread and anxiety.

From Mattel’s Teen Talk Barbie manufactured to say, ‘Math class is tough!’ in 1992 to UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking about the harm of a national ‘anti-maths mindset’ in 2023, our society has long held a deeply embedded fear of numbers. This is something that Andrew Ridgeway and Sarah Grainger are on a mission to change.

As Co-founder and Head of Operations at Everybody Counts, Andrew and Sarah sat down with Bett to talk about what’s behind the global dislike of numbers, and more importantly, what we can do to fix maths’ PR problem and equip students with the skills they need to succeed.


Maths as an essential life skill

“Math skills are an essential for everyday life,” said Sarah, “For day-to-day living, you need to have that awareness of numbers and that financial knowledge base for success.”

Maths is inextricably woven into our everyday lives: calculating how long it will take us to get from home to the office in traffic, splitting a bill after a meal out with friends, or resentfully determining how long we’ve been waiting for a delayed bus. But more than that, maths is crucial for making fundamental life decisions, like setting budgets, understanding interest rates, and planning for retirement. These decisions can shape our daily lives and determine our futures.

Despite its importance in our lives, numeracy levels around the world are poor – and getting worse. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – a triennial international survey that evaluates the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students in reading, mathematics, and science – revealed a stark decline in mathematics results in 2022. Skills levels across OECD countries fell by a record 15 points. As these results made headlines, educators and parents scratched their heads, puzzled by the dramatic downturn and asked the same question: what’s gone wrong with maths education?

For Andrew and Sarah, the issue is clear: educators are being tasked with equipping students with this fundamental life skill, but not shown how to do it effectively.


“In this country, maths programmes are very prescriptive,” explained Sarah. “A teacher is at the front of the classroom, teaching a lesson and showing you that, to get from A to B, you need to complete this pathway using these methods. And maths mastery is completely the other extreme. It's about presenting lots of different ways of reaching that problem, using lots of different resources, lots of different methods, and finding the way that works for you.”

Andrew and Sarah highlighted the successful Singaporean education model, which focuses on a conceptual understanding of mathematics at an early age and using mechanical manipulatives like counters beyond the early years to help bring maths to life for students.

“It’s more explorative,” stressed Sarah, “Rather than it being a prescriptive programme, it's about investigating and choosing the methods that work for you. You're almost presented different ways of reaching the answer from the original problem that you might be presented with at the beginning of a lesson and finding the best pathway for you. So, it's a very individual journey.”


“Missing in a lot of programmes is that concrete approach – manipulatives, pieces of paper counters, making math fun again,” said Andrew, “I think with maths, we got aligned to machine learning, and we lost the very core of what maths mastery is.”


He also highlighted a lack of awareness of dyscalculia, defined as a specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers. “Around 2.5-3% of children with dyscalculia are actually detected,” he says, “That’s the crying shame for those kids who are suffering dyscalculia with no support.” He explained that interventions can be simple, like neutral colour backgrounds and dyslexic-friendly fonts to make maths more accessible for students. 


Changing the way the world learns math, one country at a time

As educators themselves, both Andrew and Sarah recognised the needless anxiety around mathematics among students and the restrictions on teachers in schools. They realised that to turn the tide on declining maths skills, both students and teachers would need time, tools, support and a new approach to teaching mathematics. That is a tall order, especially for schools and families under the strain of challenging economic times.


“Many children – 90% in the world – can't afford math mastery. Simple as that,” said Andrew. “So we've managed to develop a product that's affordable and accessible in that marketplace.”

Everybody Counts has developed digital training tools and lesson plans for young learners to help teachers and parents adjust their approach. With firsthand experience in the classroom, the team has taken care to create a training program that is more than a lesson plan or a theoretical course, but a complete package of lessons, explanations for parents and teachers to explain the thinking behind how the lessons are designed, and support to empower educators – even if they themselves are not professional maths teachers.

The programme aims to help children master maths early in their journey, shifting lessons from prescriptive and hierarchical to engaging and interactive. Using evidence-based techniques and bringing maths to life with problems rooted in everyday life scenarios bespoke to each country, the app focuses on making maths more engaging for educators, parents and students alike.

Andrew and Sarah have found that their training has generated interest almost faster than they can keep up, with hundreds of thousands in revenue and 10 countries signed up for the beta version, with partnerships spanning Cambodia, Thailand, Egypt, Morocco and the USA.

They highlighted how their fledgling company’s success reflected the immense need for a rethink of how we teach maths, and instill maths mastery early on in students' educational journey.

“The focus has to be as early as elementary mathematics. The results at secondary, middle school, high school if you do maths mastery are astoundingly better,” urged Andrew .“Look at Latvia, at Finland, at Singapore – they're all doing maths mastery. They’re getting things right early on.”


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