Teachers Deserve Blame for Maths Disaster




Teachers almost always come from a humanities background. It therefore doesn’t surprise that they tend to feel more comfortable teaching English, History and Geography more than Maths and Science.

A very experienced curriculum coordinator recently told me that it is very common for primary teachers to skip fractions because they aren’t confident with the topic to answer some of their own text book questions let alone explain it to their students.


TYPICAL student teachers have the maths ability of a 12-year-old child, leaving them ill-equipped to teach the subject — let alone even pass a Year 9 ­NAPLAN test.

The warning comes from leading univer­sity maths lecturer Stephen Norton, who said that half his students would not pass the Year 9 national numeracy test, even after three or four years of tertiary study.

“Every year I test my students and they’ve got the understanding of a Year 7 or Year 8 kid,’’ the senior lecturer in mathematics education at Griffith University told The Weekend Australian. “They struggle with fractions and proportional reasoning and anything to do with algebra. They should have mastered this by the end of primary school. I believe it is our responsibility in univer­sities to make sure we can remediate that.’’

Dr Norton tested the maths ability of all 125 students who enrolled in a Griffith University graduate diploma of education — a one-year course for those who have a bachelor degree in another field — last year and this year, as well as 40 students in the third year of a bachelor of education course in 2013. Barely half the would-be teachers knew how to convert 5.48km into metres — and 17 per cent failed to convert 6kg into grams. Only 16 per cent could convert temperatures from degrees Celsius to Fahrenheit, using a formula written on the test paper. Just one in four knew how to convert a fraction to a percentage.

Barely one in five students could find the highest common factor of the numbers 28 and 70, and just 13 per cent knew the lowest common multiple of the numbers 40 and 140. More than half the students could not answer the question: “If the total cost of three tickets is $5.64, how much will 10 tickets cost?’’

Just one in three students knew how to calculate the areas of rectangles and triangles.

The alarming results of the only publicly available tests of student-teacher numeracy in Australia will fuel calls to reform the teaching of mathematics at schools and universities.

Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne has already flagged the introduction of compulsory literacy and numeracy tests for aspiring teachers. The most recent OECD Program for International Student Assessment test reveals that four out of 10 Australian teenagers lack basic maths skills.

The federal Education Department’s newly released 2013 teacher survey shows that only two-thirds of primary teachers and a quarter of high school teachers were trained at univers­ity to teach maths. Five per cent of the nation’s high schools had at least one ­unfilled vacancy for a maths teacher during 2012.

The official survey found that almost a third of teachers involved in teaching numeracy wanted more professional development on the job.

Queensland’s Auditor-General has found that one in three maths teachers in Years 8 to 10 lack a tertiary qualification in mathematics. Dr Norton said half the students he taught flunked his entry test — although their results improved by 30 per cent after they completed eight weeks of maths study, including 32 hours of face-to-face instruction.

“Most prospective primary teachers struggle with upper primary mathematics upon intake,’’ he said.

“It is interesting that the third and fourth-year undergraduate students were on par with the entry postgraduate students.

“Inability to carry out accurate division and convert a decimal to a percentage, or to carry out basic whole-number problem solving, prior and post learning, was cause for concern.

“Most students found any mathematics associated with fractions, proportional reasoning and algebra challenging and in many instances this was only partly remediated over the study time.’’

Dr Norton — who has a PhD in mathematics education and a master of science, and taught maths and science for a decade at Brisbane high schools — called for more face-to-face maths instruction for all trainee teachers.

He said he believed he was the only academic who tested trainee teachers’ maths ability before and after their maths instruction.


Click on the link to read Proof that Maths Can be Cool (Video)

Click on the link to read How Kids Learn Maths

Click on the link to read A Father’s Priceless Reaction to his Son’s Report Card (Video)

Click on the link to read Maths is a Very Poorly Taught Subject

Click on the link to read The Obstacle Course that is Teaching Maths


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3 Responses to “Teachers Deserve Blame for Maths Disaster”

  1. Rue Says:

    Given that the location of this piece seem to be Australia, it would be interesting to see how it might be different or the same on the American front.
    Yet this find, in itself, is very depressing.

  2. Ray Says:

    I agree this is definitely depressing. I think it may depend on the schools that the students are attending. I have observed a 2nd grade class, where they were already doing multiplication, fractions, and short division. I don’t believe that I learned multiplication until 4th or 5th grade. The school I attended and the school I observed are extremely different and this might explain the differences in what they are learning.

  3. Tatiana Says:

    I agree, it would be very interesting to see how well primary and middle school teachers know math in America. I believe high school teachers in the U.S. require at least a bachelors in the subject they’ll teach, depending on the state.

    However, a few points of comparability, one from personal experience, and one from other research:

    Currently I tutor calculus at a prestigious college in the U.S., and I have encountered students who have muddled through all of high school but in attacking a calculus problem, still get stuck in very simple concepts of numeracy, things that should have been covered in elementary school. Because of our standardized testing focus on procedural/algorithmic math (stuff a computer could do, rather than the fun stuff that actually reflects understanding), it’s amazing how far along a person can get ‘academically’ without really understanding the basics. While this produces problems later on, I think the greater misfortune is that without understanding the basics to begin with, there’s no chance for the person to pick up on the fun, conceptual side of math. I think this perpetuates our country’s math anxiety.

    Which brings me to the bit from research… it allows us to draw parallels to Australia’s math problem. Essentially, when the lack of math understanding is fueled by a fear to approach it, you get a vicious cycle. And according to Beilock and other researchers, when the teacher is uncomfortable or afraid of math, the kids get scared of it too.(http://www.teenink.com/nonfiction/academic/article/634757/How-is-Mathematics-Anxiety-Affecting-America/) So even if the teacher teaches the correct material, they can turn kids off just from their own biases.

    When I think about this problem, I notice a lot of cycles like that. But one big one is kids getting a bad foundation in maths, muddling through computational procedures in high school, going into college thinking ‘great! I never have to take math again!’ and then becoming primary school teachers, either by choice or by default.

    I say ‘by default’ because our country has the old joke, ‘if you can’t do, teach.’ However, since we’re comparing between countries, we could look to Finland for answers. Of course, Finland has a lot of things that we don’t, and there are a lot of reasons we could never implement Finland’s teaching policy in America. However, one thing they’ve got going for them is respect for their teachers. Teaching is a competitive profession, rather than the last-ditch effort when you didn’t get hired to some firm, or the thing you do just because the government will fund you to study it. Teaching is understood to be one of the harder jobs, and therefore more prestigious. This culture of respect means that more people not only try to become teachers (larger pool to draw from, so the kids theoretically get the best), but also the people working to become teachers may work harder or receive much more extensive training to prepare themselves.

    I think all of this is to say that Math in america suffers the same way teaching in general suffers, but due to our cultural fear of it, it suffers to a more noticeable extent. To change the education system in America, we need to totally overhaul the way our culture sees teachers, and the way our culture sees math.

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