Fixing the NZ Mathematics Problem is … relatively easy.

The recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science study results for New Zealand are a two-pronged problem. New Zealand students being the worst placed among English speaking nations is problematic for both their employment futures and also their ability to be an effective actor in the modern economy. The second problem is that those results will have a huge and ongoing effect attracting international students to this country. If New Zealand is seen to be the worst English speaking STEM nation it will affect both the quality and quantity of students who come here – and have a major impact on schools and Universities in terms of funds. That again will reinforce the negative cycle for domestic students. We need to do things that are urgent, effective and internationally credible/visible.

There are three keys even before the need for the Royal Society panel appointed by the Ministry look at the complexities of classroom practice.

Firstly, as a society we need to massively reinforce the role of parents as first teachers. Aspects like – the reading of many books to children, increasing the amount of conversation between the humans in the house, and significant use of positive language for effort children put in. In the home the subjects of Maths and Science also need to be supported and spoken of well. Many parents imply that if they were “useless” at Maths and couldn’t see the point that the children will follow suit. Parents need to learn with the child and speak of possibilities and progress. All parents should also consider how much screen time their child engages in.

Secondly; every teacher from Year 1 – 8 should have at least NCEA Level 2 Maths and NCEA Level 1 Science. If you don’t have proficiency in those subjects, even when teaching the youngest school students, you do not know how to set up the foundations for effective learning. We have a life-long qualifications structure. Those teachers without those levels could be required to get them within three years.

I enjoyed Maths as a student up until thirteen years of age. All of my teachers had assumed that ability was intuitive and those in my stream were taught very little of method with no emphasis on being rigorous. My attitude was also poor. By Year 13 I had quit the subject so chose what I hoped would be a descriptive degree major – Economics. My despair and desperation at the level of statistics, calculus and algebra drove me to go right back to the beginning of Maths learning and build a new foundation brick by brick. I therefore ensured an “aha” type understanding and ability to apply concepts up to the needed level.

Therefore, the third intervention is that if you are a student of the subject (or guiding one at all levels) there is a very trusted method that works and makes the subject much easier than many currently experience it.

1. Be well organized for every school day. Sleep well. Eat breakfast. Have all books and equipment you need for school. Dress well. Start the day with a great attitude.

2. Be positive towards the subject and teacher regardless of the approach of others.

3. Pay MASSIVE attention in every class. Make good notes. When you don’t understand – ask questions (during or after class). FOCUS is everything!

4. Take all of your books home each night and, with pencil in hand, review the lesson for the day. Practice the hardest problems until you go – “uh ha!”

5. Once a week write summary/study notes for the past week and practice some more.

6. Always do your set homework.

7. Always aim for excellence/100%! This doesn’t mean getting things right first time. It involves seeking help, correcting, doing it again, and again. When each level gets MASTERED move onto the next one.

If students follow this process then what they are learning will be increasingly locked in. When they get towards exams/assessments they will know things well. Many children consider themselves “bad at Maths” but genius is about effort!  

Alwyn Poole

Villa Education Trust (NZ)

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