When two plus two equals 40 - NZ's problem with maths

RNZ
Science teachers are warning their subject is being left by the wayside, as the Ministry of Education rushes to stem a long-term decline in maths results.

OPINION: They were a good class, but many found maths boring, especially last period. Mr Armstrong’s lesson on straight-line equations was hardly riveting, and I could feel attention waning.

So, I drew a mountain on the board, and wrote a straight-line equation for a plane to avoid the mountain. “But what happens if I input the wrong co-ordinates?” We did the maths, and the kids watched my badly drawn plane hit the mountain.

Suddenly the class was interested. “Is that what happened at Erebus?” “Sort of,” I replied. We talked about how early small errors can magnify later results. The whole class got involved until one diligent boy put his hand up. “Mr Armstrong, are we going to get this in our exam?”

New Zealand's 13-year-olds have recorded poor results in a major international maths and science test.
123RF
New Zealand's 13-year-olds have recorded poor results in a major international maths and science test.

I slumped, defeated. It would not just be the kid asking this question, but my superiors, the inspectors and most of the parents. “No,” I replied. “Turn to page 73 and do the even-numbered exercises.”

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I thought of this long-ago lesson when I recently read about New Zealand’s failing results in school mathematics. Places like Singapore and China do well in these tests, yet I have spoken to people from both places who hope New Zealand won’t return to the rote-learning, cramming techniques sometimes used in these countries.

New Zealand Principals' Federation chair Perry Rush.
Monique Ford/Stuff
New Zealand Principals' Federation chair Perry Rush.

Perry Rush, of the Principals’​ Federation, recently pointed out that our Ministry of Education’s National Monitoring Survey found only 45 per cent of Year 8 students are achieving at or above the expected curriculum level. You don’t need to be a maths whiz to work out that over half are not achieving.

Rush wondered why our Year 2 results were quite good, but declined by Year 8. Could it be that early childhood maths is better taught, uses more equipment, fewer textbooks, has less writing and more creative thinking, and is more fun? Blasphemy! Surely the answer is that we are not being old-fashioned enough.

The government quickly got the Royal Society to put together a group of experts to advise on the problem. And experts they are, with brilliant mathematicians and other academics from Massey University, Auckland University, Canterbury University and Wellington Te Herenga Victoria Waka University of.

Wreckage of the Mt Erebus crash in 1979. Maths plays a big part in many aspects of our life, even if we don’t always appreciate it.
Wreckage of the Mt Erebus crash in 1979. Maths plays a big part in many aspects of our life, even if we don’t always appreciate it.

The only trouble I have with the advisory group is that it is light on current “coalface” teachers. One of the problems with our education system is that teaching is a practical skill, as well as an academic pursuit. Successive governments have got rid of advisers, replaced training colleges with university courses, and introduced national standards – with little positive effect.

I look forward to the government appointing professors of physics, chemistry and metallurgy to fix my car’s dodgy fan belt.

New Zealand periodically gets “experts”, usually from Britain, telling us how we’re doing everything wrong with maths. If we must listen to overseas experts, then Marcus du Sautoy​, who has written some entertaining books on maths, may be one we can learn from.

A public meeting at Waikouaiti last week to discuss problems with lead levels in the town’s drinking water.
Hamish McNeilly/Stuff
A public meeting at Waikouaiti last week to discuss problems with lead levels in the town’s drinking water.

His problem is that children simply don’t see maths as relevant. And yet the way we encrypt credit cards, for instance, is based on knowledge of prime numbers and a 350-year-old theorem. Du Sautoy talks about turning maths into a cultural and historical story as well as a set of exercises. Imagine if English classes were simply grammar and spelling exercises, with no poetry, creative writing or reading. That’s how we often teach maths.

Yet maths is enormously relevant to us all. Only last week the people of Waikouaiti​ and Karitane​ discovered that their water had not four, as they were told by the council, but 40 times the amount of lead considered acceptable. This was due to someone not having the mathematical ability to work out that the lead reading of 0.39 mg/l is not nearly four times the acceptable level of 0.01 mg/l, but 40.

But it’s not all bad news. It was our own Te Pūnaha Matatini​ that modelled the potentially disastrous effects of Covid-19, which helped lead to our successful lockdown. We teach prime and complex numbers, but what about Reff numbers? That’s the average number of secondary cases infected by a primary case, a key measure of the transmission potential for a disease. If it’s less than 1, good; if it’s greater than 1, disaster.

Dave Armstrong: “Imagine if English classes were simply grammar and spelling exercises, with no poetry, creative writing or reading. That’s how we often teach maths.”
Robert Kitchin/Stuff
Dave Armstrong: “Imagine if English classes were simply grammar and spelling exercises, with no poetry, creative writing or reading. That’s how we often teach maths.”

During last March’s Covid outbreak, the Reff was between 1.2 and 2.2. Had it continued, hundreds or thousands could have died. Once we moved to Level 4 lockdown, the Reff dropped to between 0.35 and 0.55, and we know the rest. Wouldn’t that make a relevant maths lesson?

Then again, if we taught our students about the amazing way mathematical expertise was used to help our team of five million – or as they say at Dunedin City Council, team of 500,000 – to “flatten the curve”, someone might put their hand up and say, “Are we going to get this in the exam?”

And we would stop talking Reff numbers and turn to page 73 and continue to serve up to our students an orchestrated litany of written and non-creative mechanical exercises from the book.

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