Maths and science teaching woes

The start of the school year should be a time for optimism, and not just because it always seems to coincide with an improvement in the weather.

Children and teenagers tumble noisily into classrooms, hopefully eager to learn with the support of well-rested and resourced teachers.

But this year’s start has coincided with the reminder that pupils’ performance in international mathematics and science tests is showing serious decline, and national monitoring of student achievement is also highlighting knowledge gaps. The most recent results from the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement shows that 45% of year 8 pupils are achieving at or above curriculum expectation, and only 20% are doing so in science.

A quick perusal of coverage of this issue shows we have known there is a problem for more than 20 years. The Education Review Office, in a report in 2000, raised concerns that many primary school teachers lacked enough knowledge of maths and science to teach them well.

Then there was the still controversial Numeracy Project which promoted children learning a range of ways to solve problems and to choose the appropriate one for each problem.

The idea was to improve problem solving skills and understanding of concepts, rather than just the ability to follow rules for calculating, but many parents have reported their children have simply been confused and have missed out on acquiring basic knowledge.

With science, concerns have been raised that in many primary schools the subject has been relegated to a dusty bookshelf containing a tatty assortment of materials considered to be scientific, left unused because teachers do not know what to do with it.

There will, of course, be inspiring teachers who embed maths and science into their programmes naturally, making it interesting and relevant while imbuing their charges with the basics and sparking enthusiasm for further learning. But that does not appear to be the norm.

The New Zealand Principals Federation has called for more direction on what to teach and how to teach it.

Its president, Perry Rush, inadvertently added to the confusion by using mumbo jumbo, referring to the lack of "thought leadership" from the Ministry of Education. What he seemed to be seeking was high level advice and support for schools from those considered experts in maths and science.

He drew attention to the lack of direction from the ministry on the curriculum, resulting in a lack of coherence about what is expected at curriculum levels.

The question of whether we have gone too far down the path of allowing schools to adapt the way they deliver the curriculum to suit their communities is central to this issue.

There will be a range of views on that. There will be schools which will have been equipping their teachers with relevant training and support who would resent more ministry input, while others may consider they are missing out in the free market approach to advisory services and might welcome a change.

The ministry, predictably perhaps, has defended what it is doing, saying it has spent about $30million in the past four years on teacher training in science. It has convened a group of experts through the Royal Society to pull together a strategy showing what approaches work best for maths teaching.

The ministry is also undertaking to make the curriculum expectations clearer.

Whether these measures will be enough to solve the problem is anybody’s educated guess, or careful calculation, but we hope the urgency of the situation is being properly recognised by the ministry.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of maths and science, now and in the future. When people are not equipped with some basic understanding of both disciplines, it is all too easy for them to be swayed by irrationality.

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