Is professional development our only solution?

Last month, I received a letter from the Minister of Education, Hekia Parata, in response to my proposal for an improved primary school maths curriculum. In her letter, she wrote:

“We know that we still have some work to do to raise the overall achievement of students in literacy and numeracy. We have learnt a great deal from the Numeracy Projects in the last decade, and central to this is the importance of teacher content knowledge.

“Although there is an expectation that written methods, including traditional algorithms are used officials inform me that many teachers have been so focused on mental strategies they haven’t paid sufficient attention to this. Continued attention to building teacher knowledge will be required both in schools and in teacher training.”

So far so good! But then she goes on to say:

“Officials also inform me that while algorithms are efficient and reliable, there is no guarantee that students will understand, especially if they are learned by rote and before the student has sufficient understanding of the concepts that underpin the algorithm. There is also evidence that premature drill is ineffective, and for some students contributes to a dislike for, and a faulty view of, learning mathematics.”

Oh dear! Well, I wish to inform the Minister that her officials’ claims have little substance. The same pejorative arguments could be applied to any methods, including the “mental strategies”. In any case, they are criticisms of the manner in which these methods are taught, not the methods themselves. If Ministry officials are committed to building teacher knowledge, then there should be no rote learning without understanding, or ineffective, premature drill. Therefore, such criticisms are unfounded.

In the last month, I have also had some welcome correspondence with Dr Naomi Ingram, College of Education, University of Otago, who teaches pre-service teachers (both primary and secondary). Naomi and I agree on many things, including the current lack of emphasis on the teaching of fractions and proportional reasoning, and the importance of teacher-parent communication. She took my concerns to a meeting with her colleagues and has kindly given permission for her feedback to be posted on the Bring Back Column Addition Facebook page. I encourage everyone to read her valuable comments (posted by Mathmo Consulting on her behalf).

It worries me a great deal that the teaching profession as a whole continues to muddle through the problems with the Numeracy Project without asking some very tough questions. I wonder how many other professional bodies would get off so lightly when a largely untested system is released and the results, ten years later, are so poor. If this was something to do with healthcare, there would be a public inquiry. In the software companies I worked for, there is no way we would have released something like the Numeracy Project without stringent testing to provide evidence that it would meet the requirements and do the job effectively. In software terms, it was an alpha release, not even a beta. When untested, bug-ridden software is released, what do you get? You get something like Novopay. I hope I’m not the only one to see the irony here.

But since this is education, not health or wealth, there is no inquiry, no sense of urgency. There is nothing more important than a person’s health, financial mistakes are also very serious, but I rate a child’s education and future as pretty important too…and something we only get one chance at.

The topic of professional development of teachers keeps cropping up, so let’s discuss it now. On one hand, Hekia Parata emphasises the importance of teacher content knowledge and providing professional and learning development programmes to build teachers’ confidence and capability. On the other hand, Naomi Ingram also calls for ongoing professional development and support of teachers but informs us that the Government has reduced funding in this area. It would seem we are caught between a rock and a hard place.

I agree that teachers should have ongoing professional support and development, and it is a concern if funding in this area has been reduced. However, if the consensus is that a significant proportion of teachers are inadequately prepared to teach Numeracy Project concepts without ongoing professional support, then there has been a grave misjudgement somewhere along the line, probably because expectations were too high initially. Certainly, in the early days, there would have been a nation of practising teachers who would have needed re-training, but after more than a decade, there must now be a significant proportion of graduate teachers who were trained to deliver the new methods. Can we not expect these teachers to interpret and deliver the curriculum effectively? If not, then this raises many questions in my mind: What does the B.Ed. qualification mean? Do we need to raise the entry level requirements for student teachers? Is the curriculum too complicated if it cannot be understood in three years?

The more I learn about the Numeracy Project, the more convinced I am that teachers cannot be blamed for the misinterpretation or poor implementation of the curriculum. I’m blown away by how the four basic operations can be made to look so complicated! It must be completely overwhelming for teachers, especially those who don’t like maths, and it must be completely off-putting for many children. Who knows, it might even contribute to a dislike for, and a faulty view of, learning mathematics.

Again, drawing on my experience in the software world, if there is widespread misinterpretation or poor implementation of a product, then it is considered to be a fault of the product, not the end-users, and the vendor would take it upon themselves to make the product more robust. If the funding isn’t there to successfully support all features, then functionality would simply be reduced. In the commercial sector, you cannot get away with producing something that fails in part.

So if we are saying that teachers need more professional development to deliver the curriculum effectively, but the money for professional development isn’t actually there, then what are going to do? We have no choice but to address the curriculum. And unlike with the software analogy, simplifying the curriculum won’t necessarily reduce its functionality. In fact, I believe a simpler approach will improve greatly our chances of producing more effective teachers and more children with higher levels of numeracy.

So let’s ponder over that, because I wouldn’t like to see the topic of professional development become a convenient excuse for not examining the curriculum itself.

More encouraging are the bigger changes I am hearing about on the street! Congratulations to Mark Newman and his school for embracing the traditional methods and inviting feeder primary schools to discuss how to teach the basic operations.

There are other positive developments in the pipeline, and I hope to be able to talk about them in the future.

Dr Audrey Tan, Mathmo Consulting
May 2013