2 Feb 2021

Royal Society experts to inform 'refresh' of maths teaching

6:16 pm on 2 February 2021

The Ministry of Education has enlisted a team of experts to tackle New Zealand children's poor performance in maths.

Elementary school kids sitting in classroom and looking at blackboard with multiplication sums

The ministry says it will make the maths curriculum clearer and give teachers more help (File image). Photo: 123RF

It has commissioned the country's top science body, the Royal Society, to investigate the maths curriculum and the best ways of teaching the subject.

The ministry said it would also make the maths curriculum clearer and give teachers more help to teach it.

It announced the moves after the Principals Federation said there appeared to be no leadership, despite years of falling national and international test scores in maths and science.

Maths teacher Jake Wills said achievement in maths had been falling for some time and there appeared to be little official action to reverse the trend.

"There's been, over the last few years, a decline in standardised testing that we've seen from our students coming through in mathematics and there hasn't been a lot of leadership in that space from anyone really," he said.

"It's just basic number knowledge, being comfortable with doing basic operations - multiplication, addition, division - there's a lot of maths anxiety."

Wills, the assistant principal at Kapiti College, runs the Maths NZ website that helps teachers teach maths. He said he had seen no concrete evidence as to what was causing the decline in achievement.

However, he said there was wide variation between students and it appeared some primary and intermediate schools were teaching different things, which suggested that making the expectations of the curriculum clearer would help.

Refresh methods

The chairperson of the expert panel convened by the Royal Society, Gaven Martin, said it had been charged with informing the ministry's "refresh" of the maths curriculum and more support for teachers.

He said people should take seriously New Zealand's performance in international tests such as TIMSS (Trends in International Maths and Science Study) because they provided true international benchmarks.

"The TIMSS report basically places New Zealand dead last among nations that we might think to compare ourselves with and that's a situation that's been ongoing for maybe 25 years at Year 4. At Year 8, the situation is not good and getting worse," Prof Martin said.

"I do not feel there is huge gaps in the New Zealand curriculum and I think the issue primarily is the disjunct between what is promised in the curriculum and what is delivered."

Prof Martin said societal problems affected children's performance and left teachers with less time to do their job, while teacher education courses devoted less time to knowledge of specific subjects like maths.

"It is possible that the panel will say a key thing is the level of discipline-level knowledge at high schools, but improving that is a pretty significant challenge because the panel feels, I believe, that every single teacher in New Zealand wants to do a great job for them, their kids and their school, but they're flat tack.

"It's very easy to fall into a trap of blaming teachers for what's going on here, but the teachers are delivering what New Zealand is asking of them by and large and in the manner that's been prescribed. Whether that's the way forward for the country is something the panel will look at."

Martin said the high-paying jobs of the future would require maths knowledge and skills.

He said teachers' confidence in teaching maths had a big impact on their students, but that was a problem.

"That is something that teachers report, particularly at Year 8, teachers by-and-large don't feel confident in the mathematics they need to know," he said.

"If a teacher standing in front of you is not confident dealing with these mathematics, then the kids pick up on that.

"Kids pick up on these things really incredibly quickly and I think their view is that 'if the teacher finds this difficult then it must be impossible to me'. So I think we have to get teachers into a position where they're extremely confident in the mathematics that they're teaching, but that has to be up and down the educational sector."

Martin said he was not sure that a single, nationally approved approach to maths teaching was the answer to New Zealand's poor performance.

He said that was the approach of countries that were incredibly successful in maths, like Singapore and Finland, but their societies were more homogenous than New Zealand.

He said students were given too many opportunities to avoid maths as they progressed through school and tertiary study.

"Unfortunately over the last many decades, we continue to provide easy pathways for students to avoid doing serious mathematics," Martin said.

"We give them opt-outs all the way through NCEA so that they don't actually learn the skills they need to. When they come to university we're still providing them with opt-outs, we're removing mathematics from things like business degrees, out of engineering. It's not the way forward.

"Once those pathways are closed off, they're very, very hard to recover."

Martin said the panel had so far had one meeting and was expected to report back at the end of April.

However, its report would be peer-reviewed and he expected it would not be made public until the middle of the year.

Lack of specialist teachers

The president of the Association of Maths Teachers, Gillian Frankcom-Burgess from the University of Auckland, said the biggest problem was a lack of specialist maths teachers in both primary and secondary schools.

She said maths graduates were not choosing to become teachers and she estimated there were vacancies right now for as many as 60 fully-qualified maths teachers.

"We do not have enough maths teachers in the country and how we're going to get them I don't know," she said.

"The pipeline does not bring maths teachers to me for their education and then out into schools and that's very sad."

Dr Frankcom-Burgess said the lack of qualified maths teachers forced schools to ask teachers who were specialists in other subjects, such as English, to teach maths.

"There are people in schools teaching maths who have not been taught to teach maths and perhaps aren't happiest to teach maths," she said.

"We don't have people who love maths necessarily teaching it, and in the primary school, another area might be that we have people who are teaching eight subjects. They cannot be brilliant, wonderful and terrific in each eight of them equally, it's an impossibility.

"The people who have high maths anxiety are in dire straits, because they want to be a teacher and they cannot teach the maths in the way that they know they should."

Dr Frankcom-Burgess said teachers were doing their best to teach maths but they needed more support, ideally from experts who lived in their region and could advise them.

She said the association was trying to provide that sort of help, but it should really come from a training provider that was fully funded by the ministry.

Gaps in knowledge

The Ministry of Education's associate deputy secretary for early learning and student achievement, Pauline Cleaver, told RNZ the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement showed gaps in children's maths knowledge.

"A number of children aren't getting a full diet of maths so they might be getting a lot of one area of maths teaching, and not other areas - so a lot of number, not enough statistics," she said.

She said the expert panel's work would provide the base for improving children's achievement.

Cleaver said the ministry was also starting work to ensure the curriculum was clearer about what was expected of children at each stage of their development, and it would develop resources for teachers.

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