What Mathematicians do Part 2 – Mathematicians explore
6 June 2018
Introducing Cat Maths cards, activities, games and lessons
25 June 2018

Numeracy levels are reaching crisis point

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 problem according to Doctor Nic

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.

Workshop in Auckland with maths teachers

Maths trauma in teachers and parents

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

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.

Unclear Leadership and fragmentation

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.

Inexplicit Curriculum

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.

Ambivalence towards textbooks

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.

DMIC, Jo Boaler, Rich Tasks, Worthwhile Tasks

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.

Summary of other issues

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.

Our role at Creative Maths

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

Support us

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


  1. Dr Nic is right that the ambivalence about the use of textbooks is leading to sub-standard material being used for teaching in many situations. This is no reflection on the teachers who are doing their best, but it is on the system. Surely a return to the use of well recognized suitable texts can only do good.

    Mathematics understanding depends critically on each stage of the discovery being understood and clearly grasped in its context. If there are gaps in this development it is like the foundation of a building having some missing “bricks”. Ultimately the structure built upon such a base will tend to be unstable.

  2. Joel' Bradley says:

    I was at that AMA HOD Day, and I admire the way you called together secondary teachers to recognize what is going on in primary maths and what our successes and pain points are.

  3. Dr Shane Dye says:

    In my opinion, a lack of leadership is a huge problem. With no-one to guide the system solutions are not systemic – and often political. And, the size of the problem requires a systemic solution. Individual teacher/school PD is great but not scaleable. Does it even keep up with the new teachers added each year? With the advances in maths educational research?

    The research behind the Stuff article has 20% of New Zealanders at Level 1 or below in mathematics (on their six-point scale). To me that indicates a big problem!

    I believe that a possible systemic solution is to provide off-the-shelf maths programmes for schools. Maybe textbooks, maybe other formats. Effectively base school curricula for schools to adapt. Right now, every school duplicates the same work creating and maintaining its school curriculum. And, the form might not make it easy for a new or busy teacher to pick up and use in the classroom.

    The MoE could provide a small range of standard ready-to-use school curricula for maths. Perhaps sourced through public/private partnerships. Schools could use these as the basis or starting point for their school curriculum. They should be in a form that a teacher with limited time could use with little preparation. But also organised in a way that allows lesson and unit plans to be adapted for the school or swapped with something more suited.

    Personally I’d like to see Year-Level programmes that cross multiple NZ Curriculum Levels.

    Remove the grunt work from teacher planning – let the teachers get on with teaching. Better to be adding value by adapting existing resources to local needs than everyone developing everything from scratch for themselves.

  4. Joel' Bradley says:

    Dr Shane: I agree completely! The district (in Colorado, USA) I worked for provided solid, research-based maths (and reading and social studies) curricula, distributed freely to schools in the district (and the world, via the Internet), to free teachers to customise to fit their instructional styles, to differentiate for the students in their classrooms, and (for new teachers) to build upon as their teaching became stronger and gained more experience. It also helped with the problem of student mobility, as the curriculum was consistent throughout the whole school district: same concepts taught at the same time of year, to avoid learning gaps.

  5. Lyn says:

    The kids in NZ seem to be several years behind compared to those of many other countries. In our department we have one local teacher and 7 foreigners from 5 different countries (which already says a lot about the education system). We were all aghast by the level of maths in NZ.

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