Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The Fish: Motivating children to learn?

When it is taught badly, mathematics can be a boring or a frightening subject. If it is taught well, however, mathematics should help us to describe and explain the world around us, to solve problems and answer questions in contexts that we find interesting and that we understand.

How many fish are there here? Finding the answer to that simple question is much more complex for young children than many adults realise. The child needs to know the number names, in the right order. They must match one number to each fish in turn, making sure that they do not count any fish twice, or miss any out. And they need to know that the answer to the question, “How many?” is not the whole string of numbers from one to twelve, but just “Twelve”.

Learning to count takes a great deal of practice, and whenever we need to repeat a task over and over again to become fluent, it helps a great deal to be interested in the materials we are using. These fish are attractive objects; children want to know how many there are. Once you can count accurately, you can begin to add and take away within that number, and later to learn about multiplication and division. Counting is the basis of all arithmetic. The simple activity of counting groups of objects, in ones, or tens and ones, or hundreds, tens and ones, gives children a ‘feel’ for our amazing, simple, but powerful number system.

Mathematics is important in many aspects of our everyday life, and a good understanding of this subject can widen the options that are open to us in adult life. Research into effective ways of teaching mathematics is therefore very important – including examining ways of improving remedial activity for children who have faced particular difficulties in their educational experience.

One group of children who are vulnerable to underachievement is children in public care. Research shows that the attainment of looked-after children is much lower than it should be, often resulting in very poor educational outcomes at the age of 16 and beyond. Early intervention, beginning while children are in primary school, is important – and it is most effective if it involves the child, their foster family, and their teachers.

An intervention that has had a demonstrable impact on children’s skills in number (and on their reading) is the Letterbox Club, managed by Booktrust in partnership with the University of Leicester, for looked-after children aged 7-13. When a child becomes a member, they receive a brightly colored parcel once a month for six months, posted to their foster home and addressed to them personally. A typical parcel includes a letter to the child, two books, two number games, and some items of stationery. Each child decides for themselves how to use their materials – and most ask a wide variety of family members to read and play games with them.

The fish in the photograph have been used in case studies aiming to find out more about looked-after children’s difficulties in mathematics. At the beginning of the research, there were twenty toy fish. Now there are only twelve, as participating children have asked to keep one – a measure of their attractiveness to the children, which motivates them to learn.

Rose Griffiths

Research interests

  • The education of children in public care
  • Childhood bereavement
  • Counting and early arithmetic

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