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Back to basics

Written By: - Date published: 12:24 pm, February 24th, 2013 - 15 comments
Categories: education, national, schools - Tags: , , ,

Looks like we’re in for another round of “back to basics” nonsense in mathematics education from a bunch of politicians who know more about their own prejudices than they do about teaching and learning:

Govt eyes back to basics in maths

Education Minister Hekia Parata is considering a return to basic arithmetic for primary school children in an attempt to lift New Zealand’s faltering performance in maths.

New Zealand 9-year-olds finished last-equal in maths among peers in developed countries, in a survey published in December. Almost half could not add 218 and 191 in a test.

Officials analysing the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test found there were “significant proportions” of Year 5 children who could not add or subtract simple numbers.

I haven’t seen the specific data cited, but in the TIMSS 2011 report overall our performance in maths was only slightly below average – and note that our children are younger when assessed:

So, England, Malta, and New Zealand, where students start school at a young age, were assessed in their fifth year of schooling, but still have among the youngest students and are reported together with the fourth grade countries.

In other international measures of our maths (and general educational achievement) NZ does from OK to quite well. The achievement of our 15 year olds in PISA measures of Maths is above the OECD average:
Percentage of New Zealand 15 year-old students reaching the PISA mathematical literacy proficiency levels
It also looks like our performance rises under Labour governments and falls under National.

Be that as it may, the main reason not to charge off on another mad educational brain-fart is that “back to basics” doesn’t work. Wander the educational literature for yourselves, here’s just a couple of examples from the American experience:

The “problem-solving” movement of the 1980s arose partly in response to the realisation that student mastery of the basics had not significantly improved after a decade of emphasis on core skills.

A H Schoenfeld (2006): What Doesn’t Work: The Challenge and Failure of the What Works Clearinghouse to Conduct Meaningful Reviews of Studies of Mathematics Curricula, Educational Researcher, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Mar., 2006), pp. 13-21

Furthermore, despite the very focused emphasis of the back-to-basics period on procedural skills, “national tests showed that student performance in basic skills declined or stayed the same” (Kenney & Silver, 1997, p. 66).

T Douglas & T Owens (2001): The “New New Math”?: Two Reform Movements in Mathematics Education, Theory Into Practice, 40:2, 84-92

Once agin the Nats are hell-bent on following American educational “theory’ that is both decades old and well discredited.

If the Nats truly wanted to raise educational achievement there are two issues that they need to address, resourcing and poverty. Resourcing – the NZ educational system does very well on funding that is (by international standards) very low. Arguably, NZ has best value for money education in the world.

Poverty – all our educational performance stats are pervaded by the issue of socio-economic status / race:

We come seventh in the world in the PISA (Programme for International Student Achievement) rankings that compare national performance in reading, science and maths. But Parata says that once you disaggregate the PISA scores, Pakeha students are second in the world and Maori are 34th and Pasifika are 44th.

For a range of data focused on the socio-economic indicators themselves see here.

So in short – “back to basics” doesn’t work and isn’t needed. If we want to raise educational achievement we need to address poverty in NZ. But that’s not a message that the Nats want to hear.

15 comments on “Back to basics”

  1. aerobubble 1

    Ease off the executives, get regulation out of their hair, give them greater access to investment money, the total opposite of what builds strength in our foreign competitors, and watch companies
    load up on debt. Yet in education we can’t punish teachers enough, mess with their wages, force
    paper work and new compliance upon them, expose them to the ‘free market’ by having their schools
    compete with each other. Its just offense that this newspeak is unquestioned, by our politicians, by media, by anyone. How does being business friendly help our economy, if business can’t hack it surely there not saying nobody would buy our goods, our services, ever without regulatory relief, without gaming the tax, borrowing and building system environment to fuel a housing scarcity, housing boom and buyer drought. We are so completely fracked by parliament and the media.

  2. Dv 2

    And here I was thinking is was because Novapay cant calculate.

  3. Draco T Bastard 3

    So in short – “back to basics” doesn’t work and isn’t needed. If we want to raise educational achievement we need to address poverty in NZ. But that’s not a message that the Nats want to hear.


    If they were to address it then they’d have to admit that our present socio-economic system is the problem and they can’t do that as it goes against their beliefs.

  4. Excellent post Anthony.

    The greatest predictor of future success in life is creativity:

    It is sobering, therefore, to read Kyung Hee Kim’s recent research report documenting a continuous decline in creativity among American schoolchildren over the last two or three decades.[2]

    Kim, who is a professor of education at the College of William and Mary, analyzed scores on a battery of measures of creativity—called the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT)—collected from normative samples of schoolchildren in kindergarten through twelfth grade over several decades. According to Kim’s analyses, the scores on these tests at all grade levels began to decline somewhere between 1984 and 1990 and have continued to decline ever since.

    Indeed, the TTCT seems to be the best predictor of lifetime achievement that has yet been invented. It is a better predictor than IQ, high-school grades, or peer judgments of who will achieve the most.

    So much for back to basics.

  5. Afewknowthetruth 5

    The last thing the owners want is for the populace to be able to think for themselves and work out that they are being screwed every day; far better a populace that gets its ‘news’ from talking heads on commercial television and radio, cannot work out GST, and doesn’t notice price increases.

    Mathematically illiterate people take out loans at high interest to buy crap they don’t need: society is just as the corporations and money-lenders intended it to be when they set the agenda in the early years of the twentieth century (other than the nuisance 1% who can and do think for themselves). Dumbed-down consumers on one side and mathematically illiterate sales personnel on the other..

    Try offering a 20 dollar note and a 1 dollar coin for an item that costs $10.99.

    • Binders full of viper- women 5.1

      For the first time in world history I find myself in agreement with AFKTT… tried giving 10.10 for a 5.10 bill the other day and got a ‘what the hell are you doing?’ look from the smart phone wielding shop dude.

      • millsy 5.1.1

        To be fair, driving a till is not the easiest job. Especially on a busy with a supervisor breathing down your neck, and irritable customers looking for something to complain about.

        I have to admit that I would struggle.

  6. ianmac 6

    The testing of “basics” was done by a guy who was selling a system to improve “basics.” Conflict of interest?
    Still it will help life skills if kids did know about joining, separating and comparing sets of numbers. And everyday, it would be handy to be able to calculate quickly and accurately so that you know whether or not you are being ripped off at say a shop. Some argue that being able to Estimate the probable outcome is even more helpful. (Should come to a bit less than $17.50.) Knowing basic facts would help a lot. And if kids don’t know them, then it would not take much to help them to learn.
    Not a totally big change of direction. Look out! Parata on the warpath!

  7. Bill 7

    Thing is Anthony, that many – even professional, people in NZ can’t string a fucking sentence together. Remember the slating a certain Clare Curren recieved on these pages for her illiteracy levels? I’m honestly not sure whether she’s the rule or the exception.

    And it’s also true that many adults turn into numbchucks when trying to do simple arithmetic in their heads.

    Anyway, I’m guessing that ‘back to basics’ is a push towards ‘rote’ learning. And that has its place. As to multiple other teaching/learning methods. The only problem is when methods are adopted and pushed to the exclusion of everything else on the back of some ideological purity or whatever.

    • Hi Bill,

      The more important point in learning is motivation, not teaching method (there was even a recent study that showed, paradoxically, that the best predictor for performance on an IQ test is not IQ – it’s motivation). Children are good ‘rote’ learners when they want to be and when it fits with their goals – i.e., it’s in order to do something they want to do and they are ready to do.

      As Lev Vygotsky put it, what matters is the point at which the maturing capacities meet the right kind of support in the environment – the so-called zone of proximal development. That’s when we feel ‘interested’ in something. ‘Interestingly’,

      The concept of the zone of proximal development was originally developed by Vygotsky to argue against the use of academic, knowledge-based tests as a means to gauge students’ intelligence.

      In a way, there’s no such thing as learning (in any positive sense of the word) when self-generated motivation and ‘readiness’ is lacking – there’s only compliance. We have a population of people who, at best, have come to know, through schooling, the benefits of complying with the instructions of our superiors.

      Nevertheless, I think you’re right about mental arithmetic and writing ability.

      The ability to do mental arithmetic and to write clearly (and to be a voracious reader) gives personal power and autonomy to people. Handing that power over to a technological prosthetic is as personally disempowering as it is empowering.

      My concern, though, is about how those kinds of facilities are achieved. ‘Rote’ learning has a bad name because it assumes that a child (or adult) simply remembers facts that are, from their point of view, entirely arbitrary, meaningless and random, which is why they just have to be memorised.

      And those ‘facts’ could, therefore, be different. The rote learner is ‘agnostic’ about what they should be – 2+2=5? OK, yeah I’ll learn that if you want me to because it’s in that test I have to sit and I know you want me to give the ‘right’ answer so that you and the school can get a pat on the head).

      That kind of learning is submissive and powerless – and, of course, that is the primary lesson learnt from such a method of ‘teaching’.

      Methods – especially in education – are not just alternative paths to the same destination (e.g., knowing your times tables). They take you to an entirely different destination as a ‘learner’.

      • ianmac 7.1.1

        Motivation, Motivation, Motivation. Yes Puddlegum. It is the dominant key to learning , not only for kids but also everyone. What might trump Motivation is Self-motivation. Sadly schools do tend towards blocking self-motivation by steering the course because the System knows what is best. To me the degree with which children ask the Questions reflect the degree of Self-motivation. But check how many Questions are asked by children in the standard classroom. Usually nil.
        Sadly the classroom which is silent, well ordered, and children compliant is regarded as good and the teacher will no doubt get a Performance Pay.

      • Rogue Trooper 7.1.2

        Lev! (and that’s all there is to “say” on that score, xcept for maybe Russian Literature…)

  8. bad12 8

    Ah the best ‘problem’ for a Government to fix is one that simply does not exist…

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