Restoring confidence in mathematics education in New Zealand

In my previous post, I provided an overview of the past 20 years of mathematics education and declining student achievement in mathematics. With the announcement of a refresh of the New Zealand Curriculum (NZC), this seems like a good time to discuss the first steps towards restoring confidence in mathematics education in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Explicitly value the culture of mathematics and mathematicians

Earlier this year, I attended a Ministry of Education (MoE)-facilitated hui for Mathematics and Statistics. It was explained that the Ministry desires a bicultural curriculum that explicitly values all cultures, and that we need to shift to a decolonised, anti-racist curriculum.

Immediately, we are faced with a paradox. The word bicultural suggests that we should explicitly value only two cultures, or at least value two cultures more highly than other cultures. Does that not sound a little bit racist?

I do not wish to discuss racism here. In the context of mathematics, I don’t have to. When writing a good maths curriculum, it is the culture of mathematics and mathematicians that needs to be explicitly valued. Studying the common language of mathematics is naturally inclusive and promotes equity in the system. The beauty of mathematics is revealed to people when they realise, not only can they apply mathematics within their own cultural context, it is the same mathematics that can be applied in other cultural contexts. Mathematics is a unifying approach that fosters understanding between communities.

The social landscape of Aoteroa New Zealand is changing rapidly. Of course, local schools and kura must respond to the cultural needs of its learners and whānau, but continually writing new maths problems is exhausting for teachers and hardly a sustainable approach. It’s not mathematical thinking, either. Teachers should contribute the rich materials they write to a central bank of resources, for the benefit of other teachers and their students. As the database grows, we will spot and appreciate patterns, the same mathematics being applied in different contexts and cultures. This must surely be the ultimate in cultural sustainability.

Celebrate column addition (and other column-based methods)

“Education in New Zealand is a student-centred pathway providing continuous progression and choice.” – Ministry of Education website

It’s hard to imagine any education system in the past that wasn’t centred around students. I cannot think of anything more student-centred than giving children the wisdom of our experience and empowering them with the best mathematical tools available, so that they can make continuous progress with their maths and have a full choice of subject options at secondary school and beyond.

Our decimal number system is a place-value system that was designed to be used in columns. The decision to actively discourage our youngest children from lining up the columns not only disrespects one of the earliest key breakthroughs in mathematics, it disadvantages the children who need it the most. I don’t have to explain the benefits of column addition to any parent or caregiver who has seen their child struggle with the cognitive load of a mental strategy.

If this idea still rankles anyone in the education sphere, please read this discussion and note England’s progress since they brought back column addition eight years ago. Or, more locally, look at the progress achieved in a Decile 1 class of Year 7/8 students who caught up on three years of knowledge in five months.

Respect the cognitive science of learning and support children to learn their times tables

Despite this being an achievement objective in the NZC, it does not seem to be happening.

I do not support rote learning times tables if rote means “mindless recall without understanding the concept of multiplication”. But the messaging is that children should be using “number properties” to work out multiplication facts before committing them to memory. This is a false prerequisite.

This topic was discussed years ago, but more recently, I have come across some alarming research, detailing observations of the concept of multiplication being introduced in New Zealand classrooms. It was mathematically unsound, and the poor children were so confused, they ended up regressing. We’ve got serious problems.

Cognitive neuroscience informs us that fluency with basic facts really does matter. See discussion here.

More whole-class, explicit teaching

We already know a lot about what makes great teaching, including Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. We don’t need to reinvent teaching, just like we don’t need students to reinvent mathematics.

New Zealand’s own John Hattie has synthesised the results of tens of thousands of studies to measure the effectiveness of different teaching practices. The average effect size is 0.4, meaning that teachers should be aiming higher than that.

Direct instruction (0.60) and explicit teaching (0.57) are more effective than inquiry-based learning (0.4) and discovery-based teaching (0.21).

Scaffolding (0.82), deliberate practice (0.79) and linking new learning to prior knowledge (0.93) all have very high effect sizes.

Within-class ability grouping has a very low effect size (0.18). There has been plenty of discussion about “labelling” children, but there are far more pragmatic reasons for abandoning it. Preparing multiple lessons creates more work for the teacher and significantly reduces the contact time that any one student has with their teacher, resulting in low engagement levels and poor learning.

When done well, whole-class teaching means that students remain engaged for longer and everyone moves forward together, generating effective classroom discussion (0.82). This does not necessarily exclude group work, but the objectives of social, co-operative learning are quite different and should not replace whole-class teaching and individual practice for the core learning of mathematics.

The OECD’s PISA study in 2012 found that student-oriented learning was negatively related to mathematics performance in every education system – that evidence is very hard to ignore. If it doesn’t work for 15-year-olds, for whom it might be plausible because they should have the knowledge and maturity by then to be more self-directed in their learning, then it’s not going to work for younger children.

The same research found that teacher-directed instruction was positively related to mathematics performance, but high levels did become negatively related.

Thus, we have a strong case for mostly whole-class explicit teaching, with student-oriented approaches on the fringe. Perhaps the progressive educationists who support constructivism (the theory of learning in which children construct their own knowledge through their own experiences) forgot that the school day hasn’t gotten any longer. If students are to keep up with the rate of learning required to meet curriculum expectations, we simply cannot wait for them to discover maths by themselves, or risk them giving up when it starts to feels too hard.

There may be no silver bullet to fix New Zealand’s big maths problem, but bringing back column addition is probably as close as we will get. Let our young children line up the columns again and see their confidence restored, and likewise their teachers’ too. Then we can look forward to building a rich and flexible maths curriculum that will meet the needs of all learners.

Dr Audrey M. Tan
May 2021