A changing world demands new approaches to teaching. What sufficed even 25 years ago may have lost much of its relevance today. As much was acknowledged in 2000 when mathematics teaching at primary schools was changed markedly with the introduction of the Numeracy Project. In large part, this recognised the limitations of rote learning in a society transformed by technological revolution. Too much so, according to a report released yesterday by the New Zealand Initiative.

It criticises the project for failing to improve results, and says teachers' maths abilities are letting pupils down. "Too many children are not learning the basics off by heart at school," it concludes. "And, paradoxically, this is what is holding them back from developing a more complex understanding of maths." The group's executive director, Oliver Hartwich, says the project's shortcomings should be enough to see it "heavily modified, if not abolished altogether".

That view is too harsh. It pays little heed to the very good reasons for the project's introduction. Today, calculators and computers are available in virtually every workplace for the simplest or most complicated of tasks. This, in itself, makes knowing times tables and the like much less important. It has also contributed to employers wanting staff who have problem-solving skills and understand concepts, rather than just being able to follow the rules for calculating.

That, however, is not to say rote learning does not have a place. It remains especially important for pupils who struggle in the subject. Without an understanding of basic maths facts, they are bound to have difficulty with an approach that focuses on developing pupils' ability to use numbers to figure out problems. But for those who find maths more straightforward, the project's approach is, in the word of Auckland-based tutor Margi Leech, "fantastic".


The problem posed by the number of struggling children cannot be overlooked, however. The OECD's Pisa ranking, which assesses the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old pupils in a range of subjects, placed New Zealand 23rd for maths in 2013, a sharp drop from 13th three years previously.

The New Zealand Initiative puts some of the blame for this state of affairs on teachers. Indeed, some of the younger ones would have been products of the Numeracy Project. As such, it would be understandable if they did not have a full grasp of fundamentals such as fractions and decimals. Addressing that should be part and parcel of the Investing in Educational Success programme, which will see the best teachers paid to lift achievement across communities of schools. There is also merit in the NZEI primary teacher union's idea of specialist maths teachers at Year 5, as in countries such as China and Singapore.

Clearly, there also needs to be some modifications to the Numeracy Project, so that rote learning is taught for the benefit of struggling pupils. But there is no need for a major overhaul. That would serve only to prepare children for living and working in a world that has long gone.