Kiwi maths performance concerns

ADAM DUDDING
Last updated 08:20 08/12/2013

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The news New Zealand has plunged in the OECD's Pisa league table, which ranks the educational performance of 15-year-olds around the world, has sparked an outburst of breast-beating and blame.

Depending on who you ask, the culprit may be lack of good teachers, societal inequality or too much irrelevant guff in the curriculum. Or perhaps it's due to poor parental expectations, student loans or the sheer difficulty of counting above 10 without taking off your shoes.

Meanwhile, a leading Danish statistician says the entire Pisa system is fatally flawed and should be totally ignored by policymakers.

The biggest fall in NZ's rankings was in mathematics, from 13th to 23rd (though we also fell from 7th to 18th in science and from seventh to 13th in reading).

Asian countries including Singapore, Taiwan and Japan dominated the table. So while teachers' unions, politicians and talkback callers bicker over the reasons, we rounded some practical tips so you can give your child the best possible chance at maths.

Give a toss Perhaps the most important thing you can do to support your child's maths learning, according to the Ministry of Education's nzmaths.co.nz website, is to get involved. For preschoolers that means showing them how maths is part of day-to-day life; for high school students it means staying engaged with what they're learning.

Count ducklings Take the time to show kids that maths is a part of ordinary life: talk about the number of minutes on a P60 parking sign, get them to count the number of ducklings following their mother on a pond, or note the odd and even numbers on letterboxes.

If they're a bit older, they might be able to calculate what it's going to cost to fill your 40-litre petrol tank at $2.09 a litre*, or figure out which cellphone price plan has the lowest overall cost. It's not just numbers: when going on a roadtrip, get them to figure out the best route on a map, says Dr Jodie Hunter, from Massey's Institute of Education.

Count to 100 When introducing your preschooler to numbers, don't stop at 10 or 20. Hunter says that in Hong Kong three-year-olds routinely start preschool knowing all the numbers up to 100, and there's no reason why Kiwi kids shouldn't either.

Go to school In an ideal world, school and parents should be in partnership, which means you need to get up to the school and make sure you know your child's teacher.

By high school, the syllabus may outstrip your own skills, but you can still take an interest and contact the school if you have any concerns.

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Get them online Computers aren't just for cyber-bullying and Facebook. There are a wealth of school-endorsed online maths sites like mathplayground. com, mathsisfun.com, mathletics. com and mathsbuddy.co.nz.

And go online yourself Sites such as the Ministry of Education's nzmaths.co.nz have resources for parents wanting to support their child's maths learning, especially in preschool and primary years (in fact that's where we got half of these tips from).

Play games Snakes and Ladders, Monopoly, card games such as 500, even the tooth-rottingly sugary boardgame Candyland - all are excellent ways to teach kids maths without telling them you're doing so. You may even enjoy playing.

Help with their times tables Then again, it's not all fun and games. Rote learning is still the only way to learn basics such as adding and subtracting single digits, or basic multiplication, according to Teresa Lim, from Abacus Maths Academy in Remuera, Auckland, which bases its tutoring around mental arithmetic and the use of an abacus.

"Memorising times tables is crucial but it takes time to learn, and you can't learn it at school because maths isn't taught regularly enough." Boring car journeys are a perfect opportunity to practise.

Hire a tutor Of course Lim would say this, given she's a maths tutor. But she says even the best of maths students can benefit from extra help.

About 97 per cent of her students are Asian, and they're not just there for remedial lessons. "For Westerners, if their kid is behind in maths, then they'll send them to a tutor. For Asians, even the kids who are at the top of their class are sent to tuition. It's a different culture."

And maybe don't make them do so much sport Are you sure you want them doing weekend sport when they could be doing extra maths classes instead?

"We do classes on Saturdays," says Lim. "A lot of Kiwi kids are doing sport on Saturday, but generally Asians aren't so sporty. It's just about having a different priority."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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