Education Minister Hekia Parata is considering a return to basic arithmetic for primary school children in an attempt to lift New Zealand's faltering performance in maths.
New Zealand 9-year-olds finished last-equal in maths among peers in developed countries, in a survey published in December. Almost half could not add 218 and 191 in a test.
Officials analysing the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test found there were "significant proportions" of Year 5 children who could not add or subtract simple numbers.
The problem persisted into high school, where "there are still students who have difficulty with the very basics such as knowledge about whole numbers and decimals".
The findings are supported by a local study which found most older children at an Auckland primary school were unable to do basic arithmetic.
Year 5 students at Fairburn School in Otahuhu took more than seven seconds on average to answer each single-digit multiplication question from their times tables - such as 8x4 - and 12 seconds to answer each division question. Year 6 students, on the verge of intermediate school, took about six seconds on average for every multiplication question and 10 seconds for division.
Auckland educator Des Rainey, who did the research with teachers to test his home-made Kiwi Maths memorisation system, said the results came as a shock to the teachers and made him doubt his programme could work.
But after a year of practising multiplication and division on the Kiwi Maths grids for up to 10 minutes a day, the students more than doubled their speed.
Dr Rainey said these results were still too slow, but gave the students a chance to cope at high-school level with maths that would otherwise have been completely beyond them.
The former educational psychologist, 82, said the teachers were not to blame for the poor initial results as they succeeded as soon as they were given the right teaching methods.
"Teachers are scared off because they hate to be seen doing anything which smacks of rote learning ... That tends to put them off any sort of memorisation at all."
He said current maths ideology promoted understanding ahead of memorisation but children could not understand maths concepts if they had no knowledge to work with. "We've got to get the stuff into the kids' heads."
Ms Parata told the Weekend Herald she had asked Ministry of Education officials to talk to Dr Rainey about his methods and report to her on whether they could be used to improve teaching in other schools.
She described the TIMSS results as "extremely concerning", especially for a government that wanted to get more students into maths-centred professions such as information technology and engineering.
Education consultant Bob Garden, who co-ordinates the TIMSS survey in NZ, said he was pleased to hear Ms Parata was responding after years of inaction by successive governments and the education bureaucracy.
The former Ministry of Education research director said he believed the poor performance of New Zealand students in basic skills was a concern and Dr Rainey was right to push for a return to more traditional methods.
Auckland University mathematics lecturer Peter Hughes, who played a prominent part in introducing the changes criticised by Dr Rainey, said it was true that many students reached high school without numeracy skills and Dr Rainey's system would help them to learn their basic facts.
But he cautioned against any "back to basics" push that put huge emphasis on arithmetic at the expense of wider maths knowledge, such as geometry.
Mr Hughes said real numeracy was a combination of using the right strategy with instant recall of facts, such as knowing how to estimate the cost of an interest-rate percentage.
He dismissed worries that New Zealand children could no longer do long multiplication or division as irrelevant, as history had moved on.
"Would anyone really believe that being able to work out 45,438.5 x 65 is important? In the real world, calculators and computers are doing this rote work, leaving people, hopefully, to think, rather that spend time on tedious labour."