Students are not being taught enough "space and shape" mathematics and the "huge" learning gap is hurting achievement, the Ministry of Education says.
A lack of focus on geometry and other formal maths topics has been identified as a reason for the country's decline in international school test league tables.
Spatial thinking is central to engineering, architecture, art, robotics, surveying, computer science, medical advances such as CT scans and many more areas. At a basic level, it is important in everyday life - from simple tasks of navigation to planning a DIY job.
Lisa Rodgers, who oversees evidence, data and knowledge for the ministry, drew attention to the learning gap at a recent parliamentary committee meeting.
"We are getting smarter about the gaps that students have in their learning," she said. "Students are not learning space and shape mathematical thinking. Our students are some of the strongest in the world in terms of data and statistics, but they are missing out a huge part of the curriculum in terms of mathematical thinking."
That was a significant reason for the slip down international school maths test league tables, Ms Rodgers said.
The OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) every three years evaluates 15-year-olds' ability in maths, reading and science. After 2012 maths testing New Zealand fell from 13th to 22nd-equal.
A subsequent ministry report found students here were less exposed to formal maths - topics such as geometry and algebra - than students in Australia, Canada, the UK and, particularly, Singapore.
A student's exposure to formal maths was strongly linked to their maths achievement and students at higher-decile schools were more likely to be exposed to formal maths.
Professor Glenda Anthony, co-director of the Centre of Excellence for Research in Mathematics Education at Massey University, said schools had for some time focused particularly on numeracy.
That was no longer the case, she said, and there was a greater push to integrate the teaching of mathematical concepts.
The ministry is focusing on programmes to support maths teaching and learning as a way to address the gap, as well as initiatives such as Investing in Educational Success, which will see staff from communities of schools work together.
A new maths website, e-ako, has self-paced learning modules for teachers and students.
Professor Anthony said parents should talk to their child's school about how maths is taught.
"A lot of parents tend to think maths is about times tables and basic facts. But that's just a very small part."
Engulfed in numbers - and loving it
Madisson Boyd is in her fourth year of an engineering degree, specialising in computer systems, and "loving it".
"It really challenges me, and it's just a good community of people to be around," said the 21-year-old of her time at the University of Auckland.
Ms Boyd attended Auckland Girls' Grammar School where she took statistics and calculus.
It could be hard for those at school to see the wider practicality of maths, she said.
"A lot of my friends just thought maths was a quick calculation. But you don't realise that you probably need to invest the same amount of time as, say, writing an essay.
"A lot of people say, 'When are most people going to ever use Pythagoras' [theorem] ... but to understand the idea of it is more fundamental to using it."