Brendan Schollum: Time to solve big maths problem

Parents need to be involved.
Children's maths skills can be improved by playing simple number games. Photo / Getty Images
Children's maths skills can be improved by playing simple number games. Photo / Getty Images

Results from international tests which placed our Year 9 students at the bottom of the developed world in mathematics make for depressing reading.

Here are some suggestions for parents, our minister, her officials and those involved in teacher education and school leadership. We need far more than tinkering - we need wholesale changes if we are to have skilled, motivated students of mathematics leaving our primary schools.

First, look at more ways to get parents involved in mathematics exercises. There are many games and exercises that parents can play with their children. Parents can set up challenges regarding sports, and have their children record results and work out percentages. Schools should call on people who have this expertise, and set up regular parent information nights. The best nights have a combination of input and practice.

For example, with young children, when travelling between cities each person in turn gets the number of AA signs seen at intersections.

The children keep their own tallies, and compete for who could add the new total the fastest, as well as who was first to, say, 20 signs.

For older children use oral exercises, for example, a dress costs $100. In a sale it is reduced 10 per cent, so how much is it now? What if it is reduced a further 10 per cent? What is its new sale price? Then, do it again for 20 per cent discounts.

Second, teachers should constantly set review exercises at the beginning of each lesson when teaching mathematics. Students in general love competition and seeing improvement. In basic facts you can have students tested easily for accuracy and speed. I did this at a school I was involved in and tested each Year 9 and 10 class - it took me five minutes to test each class and I had two pieces of valid assessment (accuracy, speed) for students to record and improve upon. I would do review tests in geometry, measurement and trigonometry as well.

Third, teachers need to be confident about their own maths, and the ways to teach this complex subject. A quick check of the curriculum offered for future primary school teachers shows two specific in-college courses out of 16 are directed at mathematics (12.5 per cent of time) while there are six courses directed at history, philosophy, curriculum design and assessment (representing 37 per cent of time). From my experience teaching in two teachers' colleges, the time now allocated to mathematics (and indeed to teaching literacy) is far too low. Teacher training institutions should review the time they allocate to fundamentals of teaching subjects, and reduce (not exclude) the time allocated to the general topics. Important features of curriculum, education history, learning and teaching can be explored further in post-graduate courses.

Fourth, a number of teachers attracted to the profession have not had satisfying experiences in their own mathematics learning at primary and secondary school. How many moved away from the subject as soon as it became optional, only to find they needed good knowledge in their teacher training? I wonder what, or if, remedial courses in basic mathematics are offered to our existing or future teachers? Many would appreciate making improvements in speed and accuracy in basic and more complex functions.

Fifth, there are many websites that allow children to practise their basic facts and receive immediate feedback. These can be reinforced in school newsletters.

Changes should occur in pre-service teacher education courses. Presumably there will be considerable evaluation of what has been offered in recent in-service teacher education professional development. There is room for basics and rote learning, as well as the problem solving processes, estimating and other cognitive skills.

We must first admit that what we have is not working anywhere near as well as it should. We generally have enormous teacher goodwill, but they need appropriate training and direction. Let us again take on and solve an identified weakness in what is generally an effective, productive education system.

Brendan Schollum has had 16 years as a secondary principal, and was a lecturer at two Teachers' Colleges at primary and secondary levels.

- NZ Herald

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