Engaging Primary Children in Mathematics


reviewed by Carol Buckley - September 06, 2016

coverTitle: Engaging Primary Children in Mathematics
Author(s): Margaret Sangster
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
ISBN: 1472580265, Pages: 194, Year: 2016
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The art of teaching is challenging, rewarding, but also strategic. Successful educators seek information from well-researched sources like Margaret Sangster’s Engaging Primary Children in Mathematics. The author acknowledges the ability of children to learn mathematics involves numerous variables. From recent brain research, international testing, the hierarchy of skills, use of calculators, teaching strategies, and teachers’ dispositions for teaching mathematics, Sangster brings them all together in this vital book. Through a solid mix of research, theory, and practical suggestions, Sangster offers educators of primary students a deep understanding of how to set the stage for later success. Although Sangster’s book is apparently based on England’s education system, the content is applicable to educational professionals around the world wrestling with perceived obstacles in developing young students’ early number skills.


In the opening chapters, Sangster engages with the question of whether some children have a predisposition to learn math while others seem to lack this propensity. She intricately weaves information about brain research and motivation into the discussion and makes comments about their impact on the teaching and learning of mathematics. The author acknowledges the hierarchical nature of math with a definite progression of skills but this development is not delineated in this book. Sangster further explains why hierarchical content in math might be problematic for learning.


Throughout the book, Sangster makes a strong case for interconnectivity by forming conjectures and making generalizations. The author recognizes it is imperative for teachers to help students make connections: among different types of math content, the math in class and the world around them, and the importance of mental math. Sangster offers examples of invented strategies along with sample questions that can help determine children’s level of numerical understanding.


Sangster addresses four key issues for learning primary mathematics: calculators, story problems, conceptual understanding, and unlearning. On the use of calculators in early math classrooms, Sangster provides several questions showcasing the role of these devices. To assist children with story problems, the author recommends a problem solving approach very similar to Polya’s established decades ago. These steps are also well established in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in the United States. She also proposes a series of question prompts to help move the student’s thinking and problem solving forward. The author acknowledges that children’s natural ability to understand and apply math concepts will be a factor in their achievement. In addition, some math concepts seem more abstract, increasingly difficult, and more prone to having children develop misconceptions.


Sangster reviews the importance of teaching for conceptual understanding. If children form misconceptions about the material they are learning, it is difficult to unlearn and relearn math concepts that were learned incorrectly. She models some examples of memorized shortcuts that are incorrectly applied in different mathematical situations. Another key concept discussed by the author is that math is not limited to memorized formulas and accurate calculations. However, educators must teach young children to identify relationships in math, look for patterns, and understand how to make generalizations in primary math content. These skills will depend on teachers’ skillful instruction and support for young children and should not be delayed for use with more advanced concepts later on. Sangster offers several examples of how primary teachers can support young students in developing skills to generalize math concepts.


Finally and more importantly, Sangster deliberates on the significance of culture and environment in mathematics learning for primary students. The role of the classroom and self-efficacy of teachers cannot be underestimated. School culture, teaching style, questioning techniques, and task type all play critical roles in successful math instruction for young children.


This book’s title begins with a powerful word: engaging. Engagement theory reminds educators that students need motivation, strategies, social interaction, and knowledge. In this slim but powerful resource, Margaret Sangster skillfully intertwines these elements by providing a pragmatic reading on the mathematics education of primary students. By basing her suggestions on robust research, Sangster offers a worthy publication to mathematics teachers and administrators.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 06, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21634, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 9:22:52 AM

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