Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Why our kids are not learning their maths

In recent weeks there has been a Media Frenzy, here in New Zealand, about the state of student's maths knowledge and ability. As usual the many responses from the Non-Education side were of the view that; "kids should just learn everything by rote, just like we did when we were at school!"  No mention as to if they enjoyed maths, were successful, or if they could use the school based maths in their careers.
Some years ago I was travelling on a flight from Auckland to Wellington, sitting beside a gentleman who had a folder full of pages covered in numbers.  After some 20-30 minutes the folder was put away and we began chatting along the lines of:
"Hi, I am xxxx"
        "Pleased to meet you, I am Len Cooper"
"Where are you going and why?"
        "Off to Wellington to facilitate a maths course!"
"Wow, I am no good at maths!"
         " I beg your pardon, but while you were looking at your papers I noticed that there were many numbers and figures all over the page.  What do you do?"
"I am the accountant for xxxxx(One of the largest construction firms in New Zealand)"

This shows the total disconnect between the maths we teach in school and the real world maths!

These last two days another huge debate, after a Teenager voiced her concerns (in the school speech requirement), among other things, about why the school was not teaching her things like:  Mortgages, Buying a House, Tax, shares etc, things that would be useful to her when she left school.

To me, I think this was a reasonable request, and again possibly shows the disconnect many people feel between school maths and real world maths!

This following article is by Dave Armstrong and was published in the Dominion Post as an Opinion piece

Why our kids are not learning their maths

Many schools make maths a formal written subject, which bores many kids.
If I drew a Venn diagram of what New Zealanders talked about during dinner last night, I suspect sport and bad television would form the biggest sets. What about mathematics? It's called an empty set.
Last week, thanks to results that show declining scores for New Zealand primary students in various maths tests since around 2000, the New Zealand Initiative (NZI) – an organisation that grew out of the Right-wing Business Roundtable and other less extreme groups – released a report analysing our
national maths problem and suggesting solutions.
The NZI should be applauded for getting a topic that usually barely rates a mention onto our front pages. And what does the report say? Forget parents, our government or society – apparently the problem is the maths curriculum, especially the Numeracy Project introduced in 2000, and our
teachers. If you're wondering what numeracy is, it's basically what the previous Labour government called arithmetic.
The noble aim of the Numeracy Project was to get kids actually thinking about numerical problems and devising their own strategies to solve them. This encourages mathematical thinking and sounds far more fun than learning times tables by rote and being told how to blindly carry out mathematical
processes. 'So kids, don't just add 4 plus 7, tell us how you feel about it.'
A discussion with my wife on the best way to halve a recipe that required three-quarters of a cup of sugar proved that even adults have different yet successful strategies for solving mathematical problems.
Yet the evidence that the NZI presents suggests that the $70 million Numeracy Project has not worked. Though one could also argue that our decline could have been even worse without it – in the same way that our Government argues that even though unemployment has increased since 2008, it
would be far worse had Bill English not borrowed all that money from overseas.
The report makes little mention of the fact that a lot more New Zealand children now live in poverty and may not have parents as heavily engaged in their learning as, say, in Asia. If you've missed lunch, live in a damp house and Mum and Dad are out doing overtime to pay the rent then it's quite
difficult to work out how much birthday cake Emily has if Tristan gives her one-eighth and Jonty gives her three-sixteenths.
The lack of mathematical ability of many primary teachers is also documented in the report. Given that teachers unions have been calling for better quality professional development since Pythagoras drew triangles in the sand, don't expect much argument on this one. Though it's a pity that maths
advisors who used to visit schools and help struggling teachers were abolished by a cost-cutting government some years back.
Though there is merit in some of what the NZI report suggests, I suspect the big problem is our national attitude to maths.
Many schools make it a formal written subject which bores many kids. It could be far more practical and engaging. For example, measuring a building's
height using just your footsteps and a protractor is far more meaningful than doing countless trigonometric exercises. But imagine the outcry. How can kids possibly be learning if they're active, engaged and not writing things down?
When I was a kid there was a great bearded guy on TV who used to pose quirky maths
problems. Can you imagine TVNZ or Campbell-Liveless TV3 screening something like that
Most of us treat what is essentially an art form as bad medicine that must be endured. I'm not
sure making kids do even more rote learning – the same way Isis recruits learn the Koran –
is the answer.
I'd suggest creative experts come in and dazzle pupils and their teachers with the more
interesting aspects of maths. What about more support for cost-effective community
initiatives like Family Maths that get parents, the best teachers in the world, involved?
By making maths more and not less practical and creative, I suspect our children will be in a
far better position to accept NZI's excellent point that to solve some problems you have to
learn stuff off by heart and then practise over and over to the n-plus-oneth power.
- The Dominion Post

I thank Dave for this reasoned argument, and point out a couple of things;
       As a Dept of Education Adviser and with funding from charitable organisations I set up in 1988 and promoted Family Maths throughout New Zealand.  Initially it went well with many schools actively running Family Maths Workshops for Families.  As changes in education began, with more paper work, appraisals, etc fewer and fewer teachers and schools had the time or energy to run these sessions, 'till now I am not aware of any such evenings (apart from a  colleague running them in China!)    
        It is well known that if teachers and schools can get the community involved through activities like Family Maths then the children make better progress.
        The Numeracy Project was a Professional Development Project for teachers-as quoted in the teacher manuals published by the Ministry of Education (Not a program of instruction for the classroom) , so successful in the early days, that it grew like topsy until all Primary Teachers were given the opportunity to undergo the Professional Development.  The problem with this, is the large amount of money required to get teachers from A to Z, so the Professional Development had to be cut to cover all teachers.  
         Research, from many places, suggests that to get a teacher from A to Z requires support from facilitators and specialists for up to 3 years to make the change.  If it is 6 months and the support is removed then many teachers go backwards, not even forwards.
         The Numeracy Project emphasized to teachers the need for both Strategies and Knowledge(tables etc) so much so that I took it on board, with prompting from a principal, to write a Mathematical Passport of all the knowledge required for Arithmetic.  These passports are still being purchased by many enlightened schools!

Why is it that we have a Society which accepts that a person can say, "I am no good at maths!" BUT would never accept, without some derision, a person who says, "I can not read or write!"

Until this is addressed I do not think we will ever hear the end of the Maths in School Debate!

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