Kiwi kids are failing to grasp maths fundamentals

Pardon the cynicism, but why on earth would the Ministry of Education release a report late on a Friday before a long weekend, if not to bury bad news?

The National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement 2013 found that only 41 percent of [approximately 2000] Year 8 students achieved at Level 4 or higher on the KAMSI assessment. The curriculum expectation at Year 8 is that students will be working solidly at Level 4.

It is hardly any wonder that older primary school children are failing to grasp maths fundamentals such as fractions and decimals. Too many of them are still muddling their way through the list of whole number strategies, such as “doubling and having”, “tripling and thirding”. Assuming they have already learned how to perform column-based multiplication (which many of them haven’t), their time would be better spent experiencing decimals, fractions and percentages in a variety of ways. And I don’t mean colouring in pictures of fractions; I mean learning how to actually do maths with these numbers.

A curriculum that emphasises practice and mastery of the basics would give all children, regardless of their ethnicity or socio-economic background, the best chances of success with maths. Just look at what one Decile 1 school teacher and her students, mostly Pasifika and Maori, achieved in just five months.

We don’t have to wait for the Ministry to tell our teachers what to do; we can’t afford to. The path ahead is obvious. Let’s just get on with it.

Dr Audrey Tan, Mathmo Consulting
May 2015

Report finds Kiwi kids are failing to grasp maths fundamentals – National – NZ Herald News
Maths standards achieved by New Zealand children are sliding dramatically between their fourth and eighth years at school. – New Zealand Herald

Ministry’s concern over gaps in NZ maths teaching

Readers will be pleased to know that we already have a name for “space and shape” mathematics. It’s called geometry.

I put it to the Ministry of Education that students’ lack of exposure to “formal maths” is a direct consequence of students’ over-exposure to numeracy strategies. There are only so many hours in a school day, after all.

But let’s remain optimistic. The Ministry may never admit that the Numeracy Project was an abject failure, but the report paves the way for them to quietly sweep it under the carpet. The term “formal maths” suggests more direct teaching and less discovery-based learning.

Concern over gaps in NZ maths teaching – National – NZ Herald News
Students are not being taught enough “space and shape” mathematics and the “huge” learning gap is hurting achievement, the Ministry of Education says. – New Zealand Herald

School reforms ‘need to be tested’

“Too many education reforms are failing to measure success or failure in the classroom,” said Dr Andreas Schleicher. He is right, but in 2009, New Zealand’s National Education Monitoring Project (NEMP) concluded that “…over the 12 years from 1997 to 2009 there has been a small net improvement in mathematics performance at year 4 level (held back from a larger improvement by the decline between 2001 and 2005 in basic fact knowledge), and essentially no net change in mathematics performance at year 8 level.”

So we did have an effective evaluation in place. What happened next? NEMP got shut down and the new curriculum remains intact. It really is time for parents and teachers to demand something better from the Ministry of Education.

School reforms ‘need to be tested’
Trillions of dollars are spent on education reforms around the world without any effective evaluation to see if changes have worked, says the OECD.

The ineffectiveness of modern teaching methods

“A review of more than 200 research studies to identify teaching elements with the strongest evidence of improving attainment was published by the UK’s Sutton Trust in October 2014. It identified common practices that have no grounding in research but can be harmful, including using praise lavishly, allowing learners to discover key ideas by themselves, grouping students by ability and presenting information to students based on their preferred learning style.” – Emeritus Prof. William Reville

The reason why modern teaching methods don’t work
Whole-class teaching, in which children learn to use their long-term memory, has been abandoned for a more personalised, naturalistic approach, and it’s been a disaster.

Podcast: When Math Doesn’t Make Sense

This is an amazing interview with Assoc. Prof. Anna Stokke, co-founder of WISE Math in Canada. If you can, please find a quiet half-hour to listen to it. It’s long, but it covers everything you need to know about the current state of primary maths education in western countries.

Frankly, there is nothing more that needs to be said. After listening to this podcast, you’ll be thinking…’this makes perfect sense, so WHY are we still fighting the fight??’


Interview with TVNZ’s ONE News

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
January 2015

Primary school maths – Old column method better?
News article Jan 2015, TVNZ.

Maths & Science Not Hitting Mark

John Gerritsen asks why New Zealand students have been performing so badly in maths and science, and whether we will see any improvement with this year’s cohort.

Sadly, in the entire 27-minute report, there’s nothing to suggest the Ministry of Education is doing anything at all to address the Numeracy Project. Instead, (22:14) “the greatest potential for change lies with teachers themselves”, and “helping teachers to do that is everyone’s responsibility, not just the Ministry’s”.

It is not right that the Ministry spent $70M getting us into this mess and now it’s everyone’s responsibility to help the teachers out of it, but at least some of us are indeed taking up that responsibility. We have to, for the sake of our children.


Primary school teaching ‘based on pseudoscience’

Hard-hitting words from Professor Stephen Dinham, Chair of Teacher Education and Director of Learning and Teaching at the University of Melbourne, Australia. From the abstract of his Keynote Address to the Australian College of Educators National Conference last week:

Australian primary students are out-performed by their secondary peers in relative terms on international measures of student achievement. This paper explores some explanations for this discrepancy including the role of content knowledge in primary curricula, a general lack of an evidence base for teaching and learning in primary education with a propensity to adopt fads and fashions and the increasingly unrealistic and untenable expectations placed on primary teachers and schools.

A solid research evidence base for teacher pre-service and in-service teacher education is essential and there is a need to question from this basis of evidence current practices and untested assumptions underpinning primary teaching and schooling.

If such transformation can’t be achieved, coupled with a rethinking of the expectations held for primary schools and primary teachers, then further decline in relative and absolute terms seems inevitable.”

Primary school teaching ‘based on pseudoscience’
Pupils being experimented on with methods rooted in folklore, dogma, ritual and untested assumptions, Australian College of Educators president to say | by Bridie Jabour

Science, Data and Decisions in New Zealand’s Education System

Benjamin Riley, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the NewSchools Venture Fund, USA, has just completed a seven month fellowship in New Zealand, visiting schools all over the country. His report is incredibly timely for us, just as we call upon everyone in the education community – teachers, parents and students – to demand better standards and appeal to scientific evidence for improved teaching practices worldwide.

In his report, he describes the Numeracy Project as one of two “vexing” issues. From the section “Suspicions around the Numeracy Project”:

‘At one urban decile 10 school,…the lead teacher responsible for mathematics suspected that the Numeracy Project had “swung the pendulum too far” in teaching strategies to solve maths problems rather than developing mathematical content knowledge and fluency in algorithms. A secondary school mathematics teacher…was even more critical: ‘They can say what they want, but repetition is key [to learning basic maths facts]. We almost need to start from scratch with students, and undo bad practices…Their basic number skills are bad. They come in and cannot divide at all. They do not see multiplication as multiple addition. Kids [are being given] too many strategies, they can’t decide which is better. In maths, there should be freedom…but there is also order.’

There is also a footnote with an enigmatic statement from the Ministry of Education:

‘After reviewing a draft of this report, the Ministry offered the following comment: “There are a number of studies locally which reach similar conclusions to those in the report, and which are consistent with international studies. These conclude that there is a need for more developed and fluent number knowledge in the early years and more systematic teaching in specific areas such as place value and early algebraic knowledge”. Whether this confirms the Numeracy Project is being phased out or not I’m not entirely sure.’

What do you think?

Too much math education is based on pet theories

This excellent article points out the faulty logic of certain educationists.

Proponents of inquiry-based instruction often claim that many adults struggle with math, citing this as proof that their unsubstantiated techniques should be adopted in math classrooms. While it is true that some adults struggle with math, this is not an argument for adopting inquiry-based learning any more than it’s an argument for using jumping jacks to teach kids math since inquiry-based learning has not been shown effective…. It is incorrect and insulting to great teachers of past years to argue that instructional techniques used with previous generations did not produce creative problem solvers.” – Assoc. Prof. Anna Stokke