Friday, 26 June 2015

The Magic of Numbers
In recent times we have all heard in the media that maths learning is not up to scratch in New Zealand. Mind you, this is not new news. “A report commissioned by the Ministry of Education found that in 2013, 41% of Year 8 students were not achieving in maths at the expected level, with holes in fractions, decimals, percentages, and pro-numerals. The New Zealand Initiative released its latest education report Un(ac)countable: Why millions on maths returned little. The title raises a critical question: why did New Zealand pour $70 million and counting into a project that has failed to improve maths learning? The report covers the history of the Numeracy Project, taking a critical look at this expensive experiment that has failed to return benefits.”(1)

Right from Y2001 when the Numeracy Project was implemented in schools many of the country’s education commentators raised their concerns at such a radical change to maths teaching in primary schools. Many of the older brigade were cynical and touted other education fads that had come and gone such as the Graves’ writing process’ of the 1980s. Not that these and other curriculum initiatives were fundamentally flawed, but because the old and wise heads had seen the pendulum swing too far with each new fad and they often felt common sense and hard earned experience were not fully considered.

Millions of dollars were poured into the Numeracy Project curriculum development including significant professional development for teachers. Most younger teachers ‘cut their teeth’ on the numeracy project approach and it is all they now know regarding teaching maths. The Ministry of Education at the time said, “The biggest difference in schools involved in the Numeracy Project is that children are encouraged to learn a range of different ways to solve problems and to choose the most appropriate one for each problem. You may be familiar with certain ‘rules’ for doing maths. While these will still work, your child may learn different ways to solve problems. Often these methods involve mental strategies, or working things out in your head, rather than written methods.

Well, it is clear the Numeracy project has not lived up to its hype and we not only have many young people put off maths through utter confusion and failure but also many confused younger teachers not quite sure where to next with regard to teaching maths.

I agree with Rose Patterson’s analysis of where the numeracy project has placed our learners. “It is big picture, working it out in your head, seeing patterns, estimative, intuitive, and investigative. Grasshoppers. Sounds fun really, and as many critics of the Numeracy Project have pointed out, myself included, there is nothing wrong with grasshopper maths learning. The problem is the lack of emphasis on the former. (The exact, prescriptive, step-by-step, written, formulaic maths learning. Inchworms! May not be as fun but it is certainly useful.) And while there has been such an emphasis on seeing the big picture of how the maths game works, the eye has been taken off the ball. This inchworm style of learning may not be sufficient alone but it is necessary for helping children form the deeper conceptual understanding of maths that the Numeracy Project intended.” (2)
Everyone is in agreement that we shouldn’t swing back to the other end of the pendulum to the old style of teaching maths (rules, rules, algorithms, algorithms) but harness the best of both worlds.

For my money the key two aspects of primary maths teaching should focus on fostering fluency with number and the teaching of problem solving strategies.

It may sound old fashion but children need to have quick recall of their basic facts (times tables). There are so many fun and real life contextual ways of assisting children gaining this recall. However, like most things worthwhile in life, a bit of graft is also necessary. Children who do not gain quick mastery of the basic facts often lose confidence with maths as they struggle to gain accuracy when completing the most fundamental maths problems. This compounds as they get older and the demands of the maths programme amps up. We have a duty as educators to create an environment of support and expectation so young children have fun and achievement gaining this number fluency. Basic fact acquisition is the start of this fluency but it goes way beyond this with ‘playing’ and ‘exploring’ with number becomes part and parcel of  school life. Looking into patterns, primes etc make maths come to life---children begin to see the magic of number.

Problem solving is of course at the heart of all maths. Some children are intuitive and can quickly unravel maths problems but many do not have this natural ability. Some even have difficulty reading what is being asked. If children incrementally are exposed to problem solving strategies such as ‘guess and check’; ‘make a list’ or ‘create a table’; ‘draw a diagram’; etc , they have a ready armoury of approaches to unravel what is being asked of them.

If problem solving is handled in a supportive, real life contextual and collaborative way it becomes a fun part of the classroom programme and huge gains in achievement and confidence are made.

For many young teachers, maths teaching and learning has been confused via the numeracy project. Within the programme there is much to be lauded but it is definitely time to take stock and consider what we is working and what is not. Teachers need to follow their gut intuition and use teacher inquiry to gather information, build on their findings and become passionate explorers of  the most effective teaching methodologies that build confidence with their children.

My gut instinct and experience tells me, keep it simple and ensure fluency with number is paramount, closely followed by the teaching of problem solving strategies. Once children gain confidence with these core skills, success with more complex maths challenges will follow.

(1) +    (2) Why millions on maths didn't add up | Rose Patterson | The National Business Review---Rose Patterson Published: 12/06/2015