Making mathematics count

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 29 May 2015

Here is a brain teaser: Suppose an aeroplane takes an hour to fly from A to B on a calm day. Now imagine that it is a windy so that on the way out, the plane’s speed is reduced by headwinds. On the return flight, however, the tailwinds speed up the plane. What does this mean for the total travel time? Will it be shorter, longer or just the same?

When I went to school, I loved such puzzles. Our maths teacher Dr Müller used them to draw us into a subject that many students dread. He even organised a voluntary maths group, arranged local maths competitions and prepared some of us to enter the International Maths Olympiad.

By using such puzzles and challenges, maths came alive for us students. Playing with numbers was fun.

Thinking back to my school days with Dr Müller, I now realise how lucky I was. First of all because I had an excellent teacher. Not only was Dr Müller the friendliest person imaginable; he was also a highly qualified physicist and mathematician, who only became a teacher after a stint at IBM.

By the time he started teaching us in Year 5, we were competent in mathematic basics. Addition, subtraction, division and multiplication had been hammered into our heads at primary school. This meant that thinking about numbers was automatic and intuitive for us. This freed our capacity for Dr Müller’s mental gymnastics.

Unfortunately, many students at our schools today are not on such journeys to mathematical competence.

Next week, The New Zealand Initiative will release a report on maths teaching in New Zealand schools. It shows why many students are struggling with numbers.

The first problem is that there are too few Dr Müllers in our schools. The level of maths competence among New Zealand teachers is worrying. One third of primary school teachers could not correctly add the two fractions 7/18 and 1/9 together – and no, the answer is not 8/27!

The second problem is that our youngest students are not getting firm training in the basics. Instead, they are encouraged to solve basic problems creatively when they should actually spend more time memorising methods and times-tables.

If we want students to become good at maths, we first need to teach them the basics. Creativity will follow automatically, especially with good teachers.

And then you will understand why the plane’s return journey takes longer on windy days.

“Un(ac)countable: Why millions on maths returned little” will be launched by Minister of Education Hon Hekia Parata in Wellington on 4 June.

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