This is an important question.
One of the biggest jumps in education in New Zealand is from primary/intermediate (years 1 to 8) to secondary (Years 9 to 13). In most cases children are taught by generalist teachers in primary/intermediate (which I will call primary from now on) and by specialist maths teachers at secondary school.
Please be clear that this is NOT a criticism of Primary teachers. Primary teachers do an amazing job teaching such a wide range of subjects in a crowded curriculum to increasingly challenging groups of children. The aim of this survey is to enable communication across the gap, in order to provide better for our learners.
There have been changes in the way mathematics is being taught, and some of them have been more successful than others. I wrote about this in the post: Numeracy Crisis in New Zealand. In 2018 I ran several workshops with high school teachers entitled “Mind the Gap”, where we examined what is being taught and how in primary schools and how the two sectors might work together better to reduce the gap.
In preparation for a workshop for primary teachers I decided to ask secondary school maths teachers what they would like from the arriving Year 9s. Here is a summary of the replies from thirty-three high school maths teachers from around New Zealand. Well over half of them had been teaching for more than ten years.
High school teachers would like their Year 9 students to be fluent in multiplication tables, both multiplying and dividing. The students need to understand place value, including decimals. A positive attitude to mathematics and a willingness to persist was also highly desired. For some teachers the attitude was more important than the skills.
What really struck me, as I read the comments, was how much the teachers care that their students are successful at mathematics.
The survey begins with an open-ended question. The thing mentioned most often was multiplication tables, with fourteen mentions, followed by a positive attitude or growth mindset (ten mentions), and place value, preferably including decimals.
Teachers were asked whether each of the following was Essential, Helpful, Not really needed or “Do not waste time. The topics were suggested in an earlier informal discussion.
This table lists the priorities teaches give to some topics, summarised here in descending order of importance:
|Essential||Helpful||Not really needed||Do not waste time on this|
|Order of Operations||18||11||1||0|
|A “growth mindset” around maths||18||14||0||0|
|Not afraid of algebra||15||13||3||1|
|Names of geometric shapes||7||21||3||0|
|Multiple strategies for adding||7||17||4||2|
|Long division algorithm||2||13||10||7|
The next question asked about what might have been left out of the previous question – “What would you add as essential?” One answer made me chuckle – “A pen.”
Many were attitudinal, which could be seen as similar to liking maths or a “growth mindset”.
Measurement figured in the essentials. Comments included:
Measurement skills, Able to measure correctly with a ruler from zero in cm, mm. Some measurement concepts, such as using a ruler by starting at zero
Equivalent fractions, Working with fractions, Fluent in the use of Fractions Decimals and Percentages, Understanding of decimal place value; decimals, choosing how to solve problems (how many 10cm lengths can be cut from a 138cm length – what strategy to use?)
The teachers were asked what good things they are seeing in their students. Many commented that the attitudes are good. Comments included:
In order for teachers to focus on what really matters, we may need to leave out material that does not matter, or which would be better left until later. The question was: What would you prefer Primary teachers NOT to teach? These responses were sometimes contradictory.
Algebra figured highly in this, with seven teachers specifically saying that formal algebra should be left to high school. Patterns are fine.
There were comments about strategies taught as algorithms. A representative comment is that they would prefer teachers not to teach “so many different strategies for adding that students can’t do one way properly. One method for adding that a student can apply every time would be more useful.” But then another teacher did not want their students to use “algorithms as a first choice”.
Two other comments I have previously noticed as a problem even at university level – “The crocodile < , > idea”, and “Don’t teach = as meaning ‘put your answer after this symbol’. Do teach the meaning of equality.”
Then there were misinterpretations of the curriculum:
“Don’t teach mean, median and mode. It warps the teaching of statistics. Teach the statistics in the NZ curriculum L3 and L4 instead and leave the NZC level 5 statistical measures until secondary school.”
“I’d always rather pupils came fully grasping the essentials rather than had a weak understanding of lots of things”
“Also, I think primary teachers spend a lot of time on numeracy, but students having some idea of other areas of maths (eg measurement – how many cm are in a m, how many degrees are in a triangle) would be really helpful, as it feels like we are starting from scratch in most of these areas.”
Three people mentioned to avoid tricks and meaningless algorithms. Integers were also discouraged by two teachers. Advancement up the curriculum is another area that was discouraged. There are many ways for students to be enriched in their mathematics without pushing up into trigonometry or calculus. Discrete maths was suggested
Several comments endorsed the efforts of primary teachers, and expressed a desire to work with them, asking me to send them the results so they can be better informed and supported.
Some teachers observed that primary teachers may feel less confident in their maths. One said, “ We need to support their own learning so they are comfortable with Maths too.”
(My own thought is that this needs to be done in a spirit of collaboration, for the good of the children. My experience in helping primary teachers with their mathematical understanding has really helped me in my other teaching. In an atmosphere of trust, adults can be good at articulating what they cannot understand or makes no sense to them, and can be less likely to just go with what you say. They are excellent at asking challenging questions. Between them, primary and secondary teachers can create some great learning.)
A rather telling comment was this: “There is such a range of what students have been taught – some consistency would be awesome! When we have such a big range of skills that students have and have not been exposed to, at High School we have to cover everything again.” This is likely to be a result of the way each school creates its own curriculum based on the New Zealand curriculum.
And this comment goes against some of the push towards multiplication facts:
“I don’t actually care what skills the students carry with them (INCLUDING table ‘facts’ etc) if only they believe in their capacity to learn. Actually while on table “facts”, I have quite strong feelings about them too. I don’t want them learned as facts (I could never do that at school myself, as it happens). I would rather students see the tables as a rich store of patterns to be explored – then they have built the capacity to become brilliant algebracists. If they learn them as facts then they have built the capacity of a cheap pocket calculator.”
There are a few universal ideas, but room for a lot more discussion. One does wonder why this is not specified in the New Zealand curriculum more specifically in the way it was previously. The question is, what do we do with this now? I would love to have some more comments with suggestions. I believe this is important work.
At the workshop I will be asking Primary teachers what they think High School teachers think is important, and what they, the primary teachers, think is important. Watch this space!
If people would like to add their comments and ratings to the survey, you can find it here:
Or feel free to comment below and keep the conversation going.