From education to employment

What else do we need to know to effectively support the development of numeracy?

Supporting children with difficulties

A large proportion of children have persistent mathematics difficulties(e.g. dyscalculia) and yet these difficulties are less recognised than difficulties with reading and literacy (dyslexia). It will take time and research effort to improve understanding and recognition of dyscalculia, even in advance of developing interventions to tackle it.

Likewise, a sizeable proportion of children have anxiety that is specific to mathematics. It would be helpful to better understand the impact of this anxiety with regard to performance, post-16 participation in STEM, and general well-being. It would also be helpful to better understand the triggers of maths anxiety, as well as its trajectory and stability.

In both instances, it would be valuable to develop professional awareness of the difficulties some children experience with mathematics, the risk factors for these difficulties, and the co-morbidity of other conditions. While it is not always helpful to give children a label, better understanding of their difficulties is likely to help identify appropriate types of intervention.

Intervention and evaluation

On that note, it was clear that there is a shortage of well-conducted evaluations of interventionsthat establish what works. The quality of interventions is vital in order to facilitate synthesis and meta-analysis, and this quality needs to be demonstrable through meeting agreed reporting standards.

Interventions can vary in many ways e.g. in their targeting (children, parents or teachers; girls vs boys; by level of attainment), with regard to their timing (primary vs secondary; prior to the onset of problems as preventative measures or after onset as remediation), in their content, and in their intensity. Research needs to explore what is most effective in which circumstances.

It would also be helpful to develop a better understanding of the active ingredients of effective intervention through greater focus on the mechanisms that bring about change in children’s outcomes. Importantly, we need to fight for the publication of null results to avoid publication bias and ensure that everyone can learn the lessons from what has been shown to be ineffective as well as what has been shown to be effective.

Measurement assessment

Measurement and assessment are central components of a well-conducted evaluation. However, selecting an appropriate assessment can prove challenging since in many instances existing assessments are:

  • Unsuitable for the measurement of change over time.
  • Focused on diagnosis of problems.
  • Subject to floor and ceiling effects in the population of interest.
  • Too crude in their ability to measure the constructs of interest.
  • Expensive or burdensome (particularly for young children or low attainers who are likely to require individual rather than group assessment).

Consequently, many interventions use bespoke researcher generated assessments which compromises the ability of other researchers to conduct meta-analysis. Valuable work could therefore be undertaken to develop standard outcome measures that could be used more widely to good effect.

However, it was noted that performance is distinct from mastery. This is challenging because while assessment can more easily measure performance, teachers are being asked to focus on mastery and this is fundamentally trickier to measure.

Funding opportunities

We hope that the material presented at the showcase and associated discussion will stimulate ideas for future research. Moreover, we hope that these ideas will lead to proposals for innovative and rigorous research projects that can improve our understanding of how best to support the development of numeracy through effective policy and practice.

Details of the Nuffield Foundation’s forthcoming funding rounds can be found here and we look forward to considering some exciting ideas.

About the Author: Ruth is a Programme Head at the Nuffield Foundation. She leads the development and management of the research portfolio relating to early years and primary education, focusing on children’s skills and capabilities, teaching quality, and educational disadvantage.

Prior to joining the Nuffield Foundation, Ruth was a Research Director at NatCen Social Research where she designed and managed evaluations, and other quantitative and mixed-method studies in the fields of children, families and work.

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