At the end of 2014, TVNZ’s ONE News put together a story on the absence of column addition in the early part of New Zealand’s primary maths curriculum and the difficulties that parents face when trying to help their kids with their maths homework. I offered to show them a school that had embraced column addition and my approach to teaching maths, to see the amazing difference it had made to their students.
Naturally, the two-minute piece did not go into much depth – they failed to mention the serious consequences of not allowing children to practise column addition, e.g. half of New Zealand’s 9-year-olds cannot add two three-digit numbers – so, for those who are interested, here are the questions they had prepared, together with my answers.
Q: What’s the difference between what the kids here are learning and the current curriculum?
A: In fact, they’re still learning the same stuff, but the main difference is that students here are given the freedom to choose the methods that work best for them, and that includes the vertical methods. They also appreciate the importance of knowing their times tables off by heart, and they spend time working on that.
Q: Why should the vertical methods be taught to kids earlier?
A: The current curriculum asks children to do too much in their heads before they have the mental capacity to cope with it. The vertical methods enable children to work efficiently with larger numbers, without the cognitive overload. So really, something like column addition should be the first lesson in the book, not the last.
Q: Proponents of the current curriculum say the vertical methods are too confusing until children have a good understanding of place value. What’s your response?
A: That makes no sense to me. Understanding place value is important, and if taught well, lining up the columns really ought to help with that – that is precisely what our decimal number system was designed for! But I’m not talking about going back to the old days when children learned by rote without understanding. It does require good teaching to make sure that they’re developing their understanding as they practise these methods. And once they’re older, when they have that understanding and can hold more in their heads, then they’ll be able to migrate onto more sophisticated strategies, and quite easily too.
Q: They also say that it’s not just about finding the right answer, it’s about teaching kids to think mathematically. What’s your response?
A: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more! And that’s the fallacy of the current curriculum. Spending lots of time discussing various strategies for adding or multiplying two numbers is not a good use of children’s time. We need kids to be thinking at a higher level, solving practical problems, and not be held back by the numbers. The emphasis should be on knowing WHEN to add, subtract, multiply and divide, and we need to equip children with the skills they need to just get on with it.
Q: What results has the school had from changing the way these kids are taught?
A: The transformation in these kids has been astonishing! They used to hate maths, but now they love maths. In just five months, one class went up by three IKAN stages, and now they’re working at the expected level for their age.
The story screened on Monday 26 January 2015, just as children are getting ready to go back to school.
Special thanks to the school for allowing us to film on site.
Dr Audrey Tan, Mathmo Consulting