An article in Stuff on 16 June 2018, We are barely functioning, literally, highlighted the problem of literacy and numeracy in New Zealand. The article focusses on literacy, but numeracy levels are possibly worse.
This comes as no surprise to me.
The lack of numeracy skills is not new. Generations of people have struggled with maths and many suffer maths trauma, where even the thought of working with numbers can cause symptoms such as panic, the brain shutting down, tears, avoidance. Maths evokes your classic fight, flight or freeze responses in many, many people. My post about maths trauma and how it can be healed goes into more depth.
Maths trauma in teachers and parents contributes to the difficulty in learning and teaching mathematics. It is estimated that one third of primary school teachers suffer from maths trauma. It is NOT their fault. They themselves are the product of a cycle that perpetuates maths trauma and antipathy.
The Numeracy Project was an attempt to provide teachers with better understanding about the ways children learn mathematics, and it dominated the primary teaching landscape for nearly a decade. You can read more about it in my post explaining some of the issues of the numeracy project. It had the benefits of bringing numeracy to the fore and providing funded professional development. Teachers did get a better understanding of one model of mathematical development. At the same time, with the help of National Standards, the Numeracy Project narrowed the taught curriculum to an almost religious obsession with number (arithmetic). It also encouraged very specific “ability” grouping according to the narrow “stage” the child was perceived to be at. A very important outcome was that it alienated parents, who could not understand why their children had to learn a multitude of strange methods to add, subtract and multiply, and did not learn the “proper” way to do it.
In the Stuff article, the Ministry of Education declined an interview about the state of literacy. I’m not sure who they would even ask, when it comes to mathematics.
As part of my work as a maths activist, I visit schools and talk to teachers. Not one of the people I talk to can tell me who is in charge of mathematics education in New Zealand. There used to be about three men who carried much of the responsibility in secondary maths, but they have all changed jobs in the last 12 months, and I do not know who replaced them, if anyone. I hear rumours that the regional professional bodies are going to be contracted to provide certain kinds of professional development. However, in typical NZ fashion, it will be done on a shoestring budget. Thanks to the assessment grind of NCEA, the regional maths associations are currently struggling to maintain membership and find time to do anything like the PD that would be beneficial.
The teacher run model has potential – MAV, the Mathematical Association of Victoria, seems to be successful, and runs excellent conferences and professional development for teachers. However, they have a team of paid employees.
Another fallout from the Numeracy Project and National Standards is confusion over curriculum. Dr Jane McChesney from UC wrote about this in the paper. “Searching the New Zealand curriculum landscape for clarity and coherence: Some tensions in Mathematics and Statistics” It is very difficult for a teacher to know what is meant to be taught at any particular level. The NZ Curriculum is praised highly for its flexibility for local adaptation. This flexibility is challenging for a subject like mathematics that relies so much on previous learning for progression. This flexibility also requires each school to create its own version of the curriculum. This is satisfactory if you have a large school and enough teachers to have a maths specialist to create and maintain a global teaching plan. But in smaller and struggling schools teachers can be left on their own to work it all out themselves. This strikes me as very poor use of teacher time.
When I was in primary school in the sixties, I was in the first cohort to use the textbooks adapted from the US New Math textbooks. I loved them. They were bright and clean and had “Extra for Experts”. I have talked to teachers who used the textbooks, and they also liked them, as they provided a backbone for what they were doing in class. But these days, textbooks are seen as counter-productive, so teachers create their own worksheets. Or get them from Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers. An advantage of textbooks, is that generally they are based on good practice, whereas the other sources are not curated.
I am in no way saying that all teachers should use textbooks all the time. I am saying that when a teacher is struggling, a good textbook can help. I believe a moderately good teaching method done well is preferable to a fantastic teaching method, done poorly.
There are a number of initiatives that are encouraging more interaction in learning of mathematics. “Developing Mathematics inquiry communities” has been developed by New Zealand researchers and practitioners, and is having great success, especially in areas of social deprivation. I have also seen teachers attempting some of the ideas from DMIC, but, without the underlying mathematical understanding, they struggle to make it worthwhile. One driving philosophy is for mixed ability grouping, but without support, this is anathema to many teachers, and parents are similarly unconvinced.
These are only some of the issues. There used to be maths advisors throughout the country whom teachers could call on for help. This role has been discontinued, and schools tend to invest in more generic and less content-specific professional development.
There is a severe skill shortage for mathematics teachers, while the aging Heads of Department are being begged to stay on after retirement as there are no replacements in many areas. Consequently junior maths classes in high schools are often taught by teachers who do not have a specialisation in maths teaching. These teachers require more support, putting more pressure on other maths teachers.
There is a lack of coordination between primary and secondary schools. Primary teachers could help secondary teachers with ideas for more interactive and engaging lessons, and secondary teachers could help in content areas. This is a simplification of what could be a worthwhile symbiosis.
Of course there is no easy solution. However, there needs to be some direction. I hear from many teachers of mathematics at many levels that they are struggling. A first step would be to actually have someone identifiably in charge of mathematics in New Zealand.
Creative Maths is a social enterprise with our own projects to build a world of mathematicians. Our videos on statistics receive over a million views a year. This blog receives about a thousand views a day. Our physical and online resources help thousands of teachers and learners. You can see more about our impact here
We have several practical and visionary ideas, which we believe can make a measurable difference in the attitude of New Zealanders to mathematics, and numeracy skills in the workplace. We would be extremely happy to talk to anyone who would like to be an ally in our mission. You can contact me at n.petty@CreativeMaths.net