New Zealand Schools are Failing our Students in Mathematics. (Really?)

 New Zealand Maths is a hot topic at the moment. There are heated debates across a number of mediums in response to our latest global rankings. Much of this debate can be summarised by the speakers in this episode of Q & A with Jack Tame.  I appreciated that the majority of the speakers simply discussed the challenges and didn't claim to have a 'one size fits all' approach to fixing the problem.

Some of the main issues discussed were teacher training/ education, the reliability of testing and the various different approaches to teaching mathematics. 

Teacher Training

This morning my colleagues and I discussed our experiences from our teaching degrees. Our experiences varied hugely based on the papers we chose, the year we were at university and our provider. We were lucky enough to have a student teacher present who also noted she was receiving very limited instruction in terms of maths teaching - covering only some aspects of the curriculum.

When I was at University I found the same thing - I was disappointed with the lack of coverage. There was a maths tutor running extra classes that specialised in fractions/decimals, which I was happy to join. However, the point of the class was to support students who had failed the entrance maths test and the teacher remarked that the class was attended by few of these people! 

I also decided to take an extra summer school paper, which was picked up by a few practicing teachers as PD. This had a focus on problem solving, algebra and curriculum levels 4 and 5. This was hugely helpful for my teaching practice because I got enough support in different strands to launch into teaching with sufficient curriculum content knowledge. I was joined by about 15 of my peers in this class out of a cohort of over 200. We were however giving up the opportunity to learn about junior maths or literacy: we all had to choose one or two areas to focus on.

I think this is an area that needs development. However, whenever you are talking about teacher training you cannot neglect the fact that teaching requires a massive skillset, most of which is practical and is challenging to teach in a university lecture hall containing hundreds of students! Instead, many teachers note their mentor teacher and school pd/support in their BT years as being most influential to their practice.

"New and Improved Methods"

There is huge variety in the methods used by teachers across New Zealand. There are so many PD providers who all claim to hold the "best method" for teaching maths. Many of these approaches are marketed as the only way to teach, thus teachers must throw the baby out with the bathwater and change their previous programme, including the elements that worked well. This is especially frustrating for teachers with years of experience, who are constantly changing to a new approach.

In my third year of teaching I moved schools and went from using elements from one approach to picking up an entirely different one. I had just completed post graduate study and completed a dissertation on... effective maths teaching. Ironically, the conclusion of my case study was that a range of approaches work best - for teachers to take elements from different programmes to best suit the needs of their learners. I had a hugely successful second year: my students achieved accelerated success in mathematics and their attitude towards maths improved greatly. 

The following year I had to throw out all aspects of this programme and learn to teach maths in an entirely different way. When asked about integrating methods, the PD facilitator said "its often teachers who don't really love their students who reject our methods"... I hadn't been this frustrated in class before and it was the poorest I'd ever felt about myself as a teacher.

Just like the debate about reading that is also big in the media at the moment, there doesn't have to be a single best method for teaching a subject. If there was we surely would have discovered it by now. We know that no two students are the same and that we need to adjust our practice to meet the needs of the individuals in our classrooms. 

Moving Forward

New Zealand teachers aren't failing our learners. We all want to do right by them and there are many successful classes generating fantastic results across the country. We need to look closely at our teacher training colleges and PD providers to offer educators more support in mathematics (both in terms of content knowledge and pedagogy). However, this needs to be done in a way that values the aspects of their practice that are already working. 


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