A brighter future for mathematics education in New Zealand

In the NZ Herald, Peter Hughes asks how TIMSS 2011 and PISA 2009 can produce “such wildly contradictory results” reflecting New Zealand children’s performance in mathematics.

We can argue endlessly trying to compare two assessments of children of different ages, taken at different times, assessing different aspects of understanding mathematics. It is pointless, not least because PISA 2009 points to a population no longer representative of 15-year-olds in New Zealand today. Whatever PISA may tell us, it should not detract our attention from the “very depressing” results produced by New Zealand primary school children who have known no other approach to learning maths than that of the Numeracy Project, the very curriculum Peter Hughes helped to write.

Hughes says we urgently need to work on algebra and geometry rather than “number”. I couldn’t agree more. So much for the pioneering curriculum that was supposed to develop “algebraic thinking” in children! Why are our primary school children spending so much time taking numbers apart and putting them back together again? This introspective over-analysis of numbers is not a good use of a young child’s time.

Curriculum co-writer Vince Wright says the Numeracy Project’s failure to deliver improved pupil performance is due to the insufficient maths knowledge of our primary school teachers. We can continue to beg for more funding to up-skill our teachers, but wouldn’t it be more practical to simplify the curriculum to meet the skill set of the teachers we have, present and future?

A bright future for maths education in New Zealand depends on bright beginnings, hence my campaign to Bring back column addition to New Zealand’s early primary maths curriculum. The aim is to redress the balance between written and mental methods of computation, and to make the curriculum more accessible to a wider range of students. I do not advocate teaching column-based methods exclusively, but it’s a good place to start. As Sir Vaughan Jones says, “We have this wonderful decimal system which took tens of thousands of years to bring to perfection and to not take advantage of it for basic operations is nothing short of folly!”

When recent untested ideologies about learning take precedence over the principles of mathematics, which by their very nature are the most logical of all, one has to wonder where things are heading. There should be a division of responsibility in writing a mathematics curriculum: content and delivery. Those with true, long-term mathematical knowledge and experience should determine the content. The educationists should determine how to deliver that content, and ensure our teachers deliver it effectively.

Our university mathematics lecturers should influence what is taught in secondary schools. They, together with well-qualified and experienced secondary school teachers, should influence what is taught in primary schools. This is my idea for maths education reform, and a brighter future for maths education, in New Zealand.

Dr Audrey Tan, Mathmo Consulting
April 2013