Editorial: Maths at your fingertips a key life skill

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Kiwi kids taking last-equal place in global test for basic arithmetic are being short-changed by educators who have opted for the calculator

Basic arithmetic is essential not just for high school maths but for survival in everyday life. Photo / Thinkstock
Basic arithmetic is essential not just for high school maths but for survival in everyday life. Photo / Thinkstock

It is many years since our primary schools adopted "new maths". The idea seemed to be that children would be introduced to mathematical concepts rather than face the "rote learning" of multiplication tables and the mechanics of addition, subtraction and division. It never made much sense to parents who used their rote-learned mental arithmetic practically every day but they assumed the professionals knew what they were doing.

Alas, last December New Zealand 9-year-olds came equal last among developed countries in an international survey of mathematical ability. A significant proportion in their fifth year of schooling could not add or subtract simple numbers.

This was no surprise to a retired Auckland educator, Des Rainey, whose experience in a South Auckland school we reported last weekend. He had developed a memory-training programme to help pupils struggling with maths. In 2011 he took it to Fairburn School in Otahuhu where he gave Year 5 pupils a minute to do his test of 64 single-digit multiplication sums and they answered an average of seven.

After six months on his programme, he says, they doubled their average speed. But then the school principal returned from a leave of absence for union work and banished him. She conceded that "in using his particular approach to learning basic facts, the children were successful over time", but added, "we don't use the same programme all the time".

Mr Rainey suspects, no doubt correctly, that the profession remains fearful of any method that might be called rote learning. They use the term "basic facts" for the sums and mental techniques that have to be committed to memory.

One of the designers of today's school programmes told the Weekend Herald parents should not worry about their children's lack of ability in long multiplication and division because calculators do those sorts of sums these days.

Calculators, like computers, are only as good as the person using them. They are no use if the operator does not know what instructions to give them, or has not even a rough idea of the answer to a calculation and therefore no way of knowing when an entry error has produced a figure that cannot be right.

Educators who dismiss the importance of "basic facts" forget how disabled they would be if they had not had to memorise these things. Rote learning is no doubt as tedious for the teacher as it is for the pupils, new maths is probably much more interesting to teach and fun for the class. But unless the hard work is done not much of lasting value will be learned.

Education Minister Hekia Parata has enough battles under way in school education for the moment, but she has expressed concern at the low standard of numeracy in our schools and she must do something about it.

Basic arithmetic is essential not just for high school maths but for survival in everyday life. The person who cannot add, subtract, multiply and divide is as handicapped as someone who cannot read or write a coherent sentence.

The national standards now demanded of primary schools need to measure skills in basic arithmetic and see that our children start to catch up with those in other developed countries. Last-equal is a disgrace to those in education who decided children need not worry about counting.

- NZ Herald

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