Is there anything that sharpens the attention like the phrase “here’s my phone number” when you realise you don’t have anything nearby to write it down? We start to repeat the number we hear, chunking it into a rhythm that we can remember, passing it around the phonological loop to keep it in our brain’s working memory until we can find a pen and paper, and the numbers finally can be released. We are quite relieved to get rid of them.
Numbers and formulae are like that. Given to you to remember and repeat, they can seem tyrannical. Combined with letters without anyone explaining why on earth we would need to do that, and the word “algebra” can bring beads of sweat to the hardiest soul. But yet, such numbers and formulae make up the world around us, keep our budgets and tabletops balanced, make rockets fly and markets plummet. So why do so many of us have horrible experiences with maths?
The reason that phone numbers were originally all 7-digits long is that George Miller figured out in the 1950’s that 7 was the most items the working memory could hold. In fact, this was revised to “between 5 and 9”, but that sounds like 7 to us, and so we decided to ask 7 questions about numeracy at Learnlife, and how these skills are developed in a learner-directed environment. We sat down with Learning Guide, and soccermatics coach, Adria Balcazar.
1. How do you "structure" the acquisition of literacy and numeracy skills? Do you follow a framework? Where do you draw the line at core "functional" levels of L & N (i.e. the essentials).
We ask the big question first of what are the functional skills an adult needs around numeracy to operate successfully in society and not be taken advantage of by others. That is our baseline, and forms the core skills in each programme, from explorer to creator to changemaker.
We don’t waste time putting in stuff that is vocationally specific, such as trigonometry: that can come later if you decide that it is relevant to the path you want to follow. Instead, we focus on the numerical tools you really need in order to understand the world around you. This core approach is embedded in the learning so all learners will cover this at different points in their learning journey.
The more specific elements are offered later. Workshops to extend key areas of interest can come in when a learner reaches the point that this becomes something they want or need to focus on, for example if they want to work towards a maths entry test for higher education, then they will be supported in that. Everything is scaffolded around the learner.
2. So how do you “test” numeracy at Learnlife if everything is scaffolded around the learner? How do you know what they can do, and how does the learner know?
Well, of course this is not a test-driven environment, and so there are no multiple choice tests and sit down exams. That just does not fit. They are learning skills that are supposed to help them in the real world, and so all of our assessments are authentic. For example, instead of working on abstract singular concepts like subtraction and percentages, we combine all of the functionality into a skill such as budgeting.
Learners might choose to evidence their knowledge of budgeting in a project they need to cost before launch, but we even had two learners who were living on their own for a week, and they presented us with a full budget of their living expenses. That is definitely more useful than a simulated budget in an exam!
3. How transversal is numeracy at Learnlife?
Completely. The other day, we were working on the concepts around angles and lengths, but we did this as part of woodwork. Why would you learn that at a table facing a blackboard when you can apply it experientially and physically? If you get the calculation wrong, the chair is going to collapse under you, so there’s real motivation to learn!
We also think about “transversal” learning not only as cutting across the traditional idea of “subjects”, but also coming into learners’ lives at home. Parents often ask us how best they can support the learning at home, and there are so many opportunities.
We encourage parents to include their children in the home accounts, for example. Parents showing their children the electricity bill, and how it is broken down, how tax is calculated and added, and to spot where the company might be overcharging you; this is real, living numeracy that is going to be of tangible value in a learner’s future.
4. What kind of activities do you do to help learners internalise things like formulae in numeracy?
Well, numeracy at Learnlife is embedded in the programmes we have, and that means it comes into everything from music to design and technology. On a day-to-day level, however, we often come up with games and activities together. We had a lot of fun recently after working on the equations for speed as a measure of distance divided by time.
One learner would sketch out a trajectory with different time and distance elements and the others would have to follow it by running a certain speed, filming and timing each part. There was so much recalculation, laughter, collaboration and cheering that I couldn’t help remembering my own experience of “maths” and how different it was.
5. How do you approach numeracy at Learnlife in an inclusive way?
Self-paced learning is what we do best at Learnlife and one of the beautiful elements of that is that it is intrinsically more inclusive. Trying to march everyone at the same pace towards an assessment is just failing to understand the diversity of learners in your environment, and badly letting people down. We have the flexibility inbuilt to differentiate learning for individuals, and create space for extension projects and activities for those who find a spark in what they are doing and want to feed the flame a little more.
6. Any success stories that stand out to you?
Soccermatics. Yes, that’s the big success story lately. This is where we really worked on mental maths, and finding a way to support their development of that quick mental agility and cognitive flexibility around numeracy. No paper, no pen.
We had a big soccer pitch drawn out, and everyone had a position. The learners co-created the rules using mathematical modelling, and when one of them solved a problem, they were allowed to pass forward, and try to “score” a goal.
We don’t really encourage hugely competitive sports at Learnlife, as we focus on the competition with yourself, and the learners managed to find that great balance between collaboration and a bit of competition to keep it interesting. Nobody was left out, and they were laser focused on solving the problems. Whenever there is a gap in the day, this is always the thing they want to do.
7. What challenges do you encounter in the way you approach numeracy at Learnlife?
Of course designing new ways to learn these skills while respecting the diversity of interest and engagement is challenging, but we find the learners really help with that, and love the challenge of setting up an activity.
I would say that the most challenging thing is when a learner arrives from a more traditional school environment and tells us they are afraid of maths, or even “hates” it. There can be a block there, but we know that the way we approach numeracy at Learnlife means they will eventually find their place within it, even if it takes a long time to “unlearn” what maths means to them, and to see it in a new light. When you are playing soccermatics and trying to get that ball across the line, or calculating angles to make your 3D design come out the way you visualise it, learners tend to forget the label of “maths”. These are just skills that you need to support your own passions, and that is a very different thing.