#069 Helen Williams: Early Years teaching and manipulatives

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This episode of the Mr Barton Maths Podcast is proudly sponsored by BossMaths. Check out their excellent website here.

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On this episode of the Mr Barton Maths Podcast, I spoke to Dr Helen Williams

Helen has been teaching, and learning about mathematics teaching, for over 30 years. Her particular expertise is in learning maths with children from 3 to 8 years of age.

Now, a bit of background on this episode. I first met Helen at BCME earlier this year, where she rightly berated me for not having any early years specialists on the show. Having hung my head in shame, my response was simple: you are welcome on the show any time.

Regular listeners will know that I am on a mission on this podcast to find out more about areas of education that I am shamefully unaware of. Fortunately, there are plenty. And it is fair to say that early years teaching is pretty high on that list. I hope I redressed the balance somewhat with my Bernie Westacott interview on the usual us manipulatives and other visual aids – and if you have not listened, or indeed watched, that episode yet, then you might want to check it out before going any further, as this conversation builds on that episode, and Helen makes several references to it. But I still had plenty of questions left unanswered – not least of which was what on earth does an early years lesson look like, and how on earth do you go about introducing something like the concept of numbers???

So, in a wide ranging, and – for me at least – fascinating conversation, Helen and I discussed the following things, and plenty more besides:

  • What is Helen’s favourite failure, and what did she learn from the experience?
  • Helen then takes us through the planning and delivery of an early years lesson, which includes gold painted beans and students sat around on the carpet. Honestly, it is fascinating, and apologies in advance for the stupid questions I ask.
  • What are some of the key difficulties young children have with maths?
  • Why does Helen believe so passionately in manipulatives?
  • What can primary and secondary colleagues learn from each other
  • And then – feeling a little brave – I dare broach the topic of Cognitive Load Theory and Helen’s views on it.
  • Finally, when we are talking again – only messing – Helen shares an outstanding Big 3, and links to everything Helen discusses can be found in the show notes

I absolutely loved this conversation. I will be honest, I was dead nervous beforehand. I am an avid follower of Helen on Twitter, and I no she suffers no fools. Indeed, she has had more than a few virtual run-ins with former podcast guests, Dylan Wiliam among them. But I found Helen to be fascinating conversational company, and I really do think this is essential listening for any secondary school teacher who wants an insight into where a student’s mathematical journey begins, and to get a different perspective on what a maths lesson could be. And I will be reflecting more on this, and other things, in my Takeaway at the end of the show.

Now, if you are listening to this interview just before Christmas, and struggling for the perfect gift for Granny, Mum, Autine Joan, or the dog – then can I recommend How I Wish I’d Taught Maths, by this clueless podcast host. And if you and your nearest and dearest already own a copy, then you can support his podcast by leaving a review wherever you get your podcasts from, or by recommending an episode to your colleagues. It just help the audience keep growing. Thanks so much for your support.

Helen William’s Big 3 (+ 1):
1. Blog: Toulouse International School teacher Simon Gregg’s blog about his classroom and teaching – lots of maths with (this year) Y4( 8-9 holds) and last year K2 (4&5 year olds)
2. Website: Erikson Early Maths Collaborative launched in 2007. FREE wealth of resources – all evidence&research informed – for all those working with and interested in how early maths develops
3. On twitter #WODB – Just follow it and join in!
4. And finally, none of these but I urge all teachers to join one prof body, one SA. ATM has been the one to nurture me from the early 1980s

Links to the other things Helen discussed:

Hughes, M., (1986) Children and Number:Difficulties in learning mathematics. Oxford: Basil Blackwell – this the research into young children understanding (or not!) symbols and arithmetic.

Mason, J. H. (2002) Researching Your Own Practice. The Discipline of Noticing. London: RoutledgeFalmer – Mason quotes and research methodology (links to when we were talking about cognitive science)

Article by Dr Sue Gifford on how to build lovers of mathematics in the early years.

Link to current statutory Early Years Foundation Stage Early Learning Goals, for the end of the Reception year (4/5 years old)
There are two goals for maths, this is the one for number. In red are those elements unsupported as achievable by international research:
“Children count reliably with numbers from 1 to 20, place them in order and say which number is one more or one less than a given number. Using quantities and objects, they add and subtract two single-digit numbers and count on or back to find the answer. They solve problems, including doubling, halving and sharing.”

Link to ELG recommended by the Early Childhood Mathematics Group and supported by research

TES article about reservations over the Goals currently being piloted

(A level ref!) Link to the Characteristics of Effective Learning

Excellent book on the use of manipulatives – every school needs one! –
Griffiths, R., Back, J. And Gifford, S. (2016) Making Numbers: Using manipulatives to teach arithmetic. OUP

Link to a maths professional, independent, subject association: ATM

On Twitter Helen is @helenjwc
Helen’s blog is mathsedandotherstuff.blogspot.com
The book that Helen wrote about Cuisenaire rods is here
And details about the associated ATM course are here

My usual plugs:

Thanks so much for listening, and I really hope you enjoy the show!
Craig Barton

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