The quotation in the title of this chapter is something asked of Laurie Rousham by a three-year-old called Mark. He had heard Laurie say that he did ‘maths’, but wasn’t sure what it was. Of course, Laurie answered ‘Yes! That’s exactly what it is!’ Unfortunately, we have to report that this rosy pre-school view did not survive Mark’s encounter with school mathematics.
Mathematics is an area of great concern to teachers, parents and the general public. For many, their own learning of the subject ended with feelings of confusion or failure. Adults pass these feelings on to young children through such statements as ‘I could never do maths’ or ‘I hated maths!’, but teachers of the early years can also have a more directly negative effect.
When we feel insecure, whatever the situation, we play safe. A drowning person will not use a swimming stroke he has only just learnt to get himself to dry land. Less dramatically, a cook will not experiment with a new recipe if important guests are expected. Similarly, there is a temptation in the classroom for the teacher who feels insecure mathematically to fall back on traditional procedures and teaching methods.
Unfortunately, most traditional methods are very didactic in style and regard the young child as a blank sheet onto which the teacher writes mathematical knowledge. Hilary Shuard put this very well in the 1985 Horizon television programme ‘Twice Five Plus the Wings of a Bird’ for the BBC:
We’ve had very much in mathematics education the idea that the child is an empty vessel and you pour in mathematics. Often I think we have thought of the child as a rather leaky vessel and mathematics has flowed out as well as in!