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# Is maths becoming a dead language?

In the 1980’s American restaurant chain A&W were going to kick Mcdonald’s marketing butt. How? Instead of a quarter pounder burger they brought out and promoted a third pounder!!!! The promo failed. Why? Americans didn’t get fractions. More frightening, in Why do Americans stink at maths?, Elizabeth Green, The New York Times ( 23 JUL 2014) was the US study that found 17 percent of medication errors were caused by maths mistakes made by doctors or pharmacists.

Meanwhile students in Australia, USA and the UK are dropping out of maths like flies.

**Something is seriously wrong with the way we teach maths.**

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# Vote 1 Me. (Probably can’t count to 2 anyway.)

Politicians around the world use education to win votes. We will raise numeracy standards they promise. Of course, this may not help your child, just the state averages.

Nevertheless, Back to Basics concepts are being pushed in the UK, USA and Australia by politicians.

In 2009 Obama backed “common standards” and “common core” curriculum in maths supported by $USA 4 Billion in grants. (Why do Americans stink at maths?, Elizabeth Green, The New York Times, 23 JUL 2014).

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Later this year a new ‘**Back to Basics’** Curriculum will be rolled out in the UK with an emphasis on times tables and mental maths. (Schools must go back to basics to raise maths standards, Graeme Paton, The Telegraph, UK, 18 FEB 2014)

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Australia has introduced a National Curriculum and National Testing (NAPLAN) in numeracy and literacy in recent years. The current government just put up $22 million to back **Direct Instruction** in Indigenous Schools across Qld, NT and WA (Noel Pearson’s learning engine, Jamie Walker, The Australia, 5 JUL 2014) **Direct Instruction** is a commercial product involving very rigid and proscriptive Back to Basics curriculum and testing program from National Institute of Direct Instruction based in Eugene, Oregon.

Teachers use strict guidelines and must keep within the program. Eg:

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# Do back to basics programs work?

Maybe. It depends on what you are measuring. Students can improve some maths skills. The work sheets are very clear and that is to be applauded. And so, in time, standards may rise on paper.

But there are still two huge problems.

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# We have ways of teaching to make you hate maths!!!!

Firstly, there is the McMath Element. Do you want Pythagoras with that quarter pounder? Repetitive, pre-packaged, parrot-style learning is easily forgotten. According to Professor Roediger professor of psychology at Washington Uni ‘effortful, varied practice builds mastery’. (How tests make us smarter, New York Times, 18 Jul 2014).

Secondly, rigid drilling is boring. Students grind through the exercise after exercise being constantly reminded that maths is dry, dull and boring on a coma-inducing scale. Students will, as is the current trend, drop maths as soon as they can.

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# Why would some kids prefer water boarding to doing maths?

According to Peter Sullivan, Professor of Mathematics Edu at Monash University students drop maths because it is:

** not related to the real world,**

**repetitious,**

**boring**

**and restrictive.**

But it is not just students who find maths boring. Teachers who are forced to adopt rigid, repetitive and monotonous prepackaged courses also become disillusioned.

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# One size does not fit all and local knowledge counts

I’m sitting in a Grade 3 classroom in a remote Indigenous School on Elcho Island off the coast of NT. (Last week I ran some fun/creative workshops for staff.) The young enthusiastic teacher (with the help of two indigenous interpreters) was teaching the students to count to 10 and write the numbers from 1 – 10.

Students arrive at school speaking only the local Indigenous language. They must acquire literacy skills in their own language before they are taught English in Grade 4. There is a good deal of catching up to be achieved in numeracy skills. Many Indigenous languages only name the numbers 1, 2, 3 and many. The teachers on the island are familiar with the difficulties facing their students and work hard with empathy and enthusiasm to overcome multiple disadvantages of their students.

Teachers on the island have developed extraordinary resources and creative programs to engage their students in learning maths. Imposing a rigid curriculum regeme like Direct Instruction on Elcho Island schools will further disadvantage the students and also demoralize the dedicated staff.

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# Ways of teaching maths that work

Here are two teaching methods that are not only flexible and fun, they have been proven to work in the classroom.

### The Walker Learning Approach

Kathy Walker is an Australian educator, author and early years curriculum expert. Her books include What’s the Hurry? and Play Matters. The Walker Learning Approach, which is used in many schools around Australia including Elcho Island, is an evidence-based strategy that encourages play-based discovery and learning as well as explicit instruction in numeracy and literature (K – Year 8). More here.

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### Magdelene Lampert: Learning by Communication Method

Magdalene Lampert, until recently professor of education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and author of “Teaching Problems and the Problems of Teaching , has replaced ‘answer-getting’ with ‘sense-making’.(Why do Americans stink at maths?, Elizabeth Green, The New York Times, 23 JUL 2014)

She advocates incorporating communication in maths as ‘being able to explain your thinking so that someone else grasps your ideas’ improves your undestanding ( as any teacher knows from their own experiences in front of the classroom.)

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**LET TEACHERS TEACH**

Yeah! MATHS: Guaranteed to be boring one day and scary the next but always a complete waste of time – there’s a product that’s not going to sell.

Let teachers teach. This should be a campaign slogan to put maths teaching back into the hands of the people, who know what is going on in the classroom. Imposing rigid regimes on teachers is counter productive as the teachers become as bored, as angry and as disenfranchised as their students. I mean ‘why bother?’ We need teachers with passion, enthusiasm and creativity to teach maths, not Mathsbots pre-programmed by politicans to win votes.

Politicians do not teach your children. Teachers do. If politicians and the bureaucracy make teachers lives miserable, this misery will be passed onto their students … Your children. There must be checks and balances – and cliches, I guess – but it is the teacher who passes on their love or hatred of maths to your children. If the community gives teachers the chance to teach maths creatively and with humour, they will take up the challenge and your child will benefit.

I was taught by a young and enthusiastic Maths teacher at a small rural hgh school in the sixties. That’s almost 50 years ago – OMG! Don’t do the maths. His name was Barry Underhill.

**I’m Mathspig. And I love maths.**