Balanced approach needed to teach maths

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The chief executive of the New Zealand Catholic Education Office has suggested that a solution to this country’s declining student achievement in mathematics lies in a balanced approach to teaching the subject.

Writing in the December issue of the NZCEO’s Lighting New Fires newsletter, Dr Kevin Shore said that the teaching of mathematics in under the microscope in New Zealand and Australia. 

Dr Shore noted reported significant declines in student achievement in mathematics in both countries.  

Last year, The New Zealand Herald reported that the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) showed that Year 9 New Zealand students dropped from a score of 493 in the last survey in 2015 to a score of 482 (ranking 23 out of 39 countries). This is based on a global average of 500, when the surveys started in 1995. In the first survey, Year 9 New Zealand students scored just above 500.  

“At the heart of this debate,” Dr Shore wrote, “is an ideological battle between student-led, ‘constructivist’ pedagogies and teacher-led ‘instructivist’ teaching approaches.” 

Dr Shore, a former teacher of mathematics, said he did not want to oversimplify a complex issue. 

“ . . . [B]ut academics in Australia propose that an emphasis on strategy over explicit teaching has led to a lack of student self-confidence, resulting in diminished understanding and knowledge. They argue the emphasis in Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programmes in Australia on constructivist pedagogies has resulted in limited emphasis on explicit teacher instruction in mathematics, resulting in declining outcomes for students.” 

Dr Shore noted that “pedagogical practice in education often swings between extremes”. 

But the solution would seem to be one of balance, he added. “Our students excel at something when they understand what to do, are knowledgeable, successful and stimulated.” 

“Explicit mathematics instruction will provide the skills and, once mastered, students will have sufficient expertise to engage in student-led activities in the classroom. It is never one or the other, but a beautiful combination of pedagogical approaches that masterful teachers integrate in their practice.”  

But Dr Shore added that teachers “deserve the support of a national coherent set of resources and strong leadership across the sector regarding those approaches that work best for student achievement”. 

A new report from the Royal Society Te Apārangi is reportedly calling for radical change in how maths and statistics is taught in New Zealand schools. Among the recommendations is one hour of maths every day in years 0-10, with all curriculum areas covered.   


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Michael Otto

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