Students struggling in maths start high school up to five years behind advanced peers
- Teachers struggle to tailor maths to students up to five years apart in ability.
- Lack of time, crowded curriculum and limited ongoing training add to challenge.
- Educators say many primary school teachers lack confidence in mathematics.
Primary school students who struggle with maths are starting high school as much as five years behind their more advanced classmates, setting teachers an almost insurmountable task to close the gap.
Thirty-six per cent of Australian primary school teachers surveyed by Oxford University Press said many of their students were beginning high school without important foundational skills in maths such as knowing their times tables or using estimation to predict answers.
Any one primary school class will contain students as much as five years apart in maths skills, and teachers struggle to differentiate the lessons.
Those students are far more likely to begin secondary school disengaged from mathematics and to experience anxiety about learning maths, increasing the risk that they will fall further behind.
The survey of 228 teachers also found that most primary school teachers feel under-trained to differentiate their lesson plans so that advanced students can be stretched and slower students can catch up.
Challenges including a lack of time, a crowded curriculum with too many concepts and not enough depth, lack of support staff, and large class sizes all emerged as obstacles to tailoring maths lessons for all students.
Sixty per cent of teachers surveyed said they would like to receive more on-the-job training in differentiating maths teaching for students of varying abilities.
Oxford University Press director of publishing Lee Walker said the survey results were concerning because they suggest many students begin high school already disengaged from maths, increasing the likelihood of lifelong learning problems.
“The diverse range of abilities among students in today’s classrooms will only add to teachers’ already limited time constraints,” Walker said.
“It’s therefore vital that educators, school leaders and education organisations band together to provide our teachers with the support and resources they need to meet the challenges of the classroom and the varying requirements of their students.”
The survey report, which draws on the expertise of some of Australia’s most experienced maths educators, recommends assessing students at the beginning of the school year to inform teaching programs, giving teachers greater access to support such as tutors and teaching aides, and developing sustained ongoing professional learning programs for teachers.
The results follow the development of a new Australian curriculum beginning next year that emphasises greater mastery of maths problems in the early years. Australian students’ performance in maths has declined relative to overseas students in the Program for International Student Assessment.
The Australian Maths Trust’s Janine Sprakel, a veteran maths teacher and teacher educator, said learning maths was like building blocks and a child missing a foundational block would always struggle to learn more advanced concepts.
Sprakel said Australia had an intergenerational cultural problem with maths, in which parents passed their maths phobia down to their children.
“The number of times I’ve been in a parent-teacher interview or at a dinner party and it comes out that I work in maths, and they’ll say, ‘I was never any good at it’, and it’s almost a point of pride,” she said.
“You wouldn’t claim the same with literacy or with swimming in Australia. You wouldn’t dare admit you can’t swim. But we are quite happy admitting that we can’t do mathematics.”
Peter Maher is head of primary mathematics at Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School. He contributed to the survey report.
Maher, who has taught maths for 40 years, said many primary school teachers lacked confidence in maths themselves and were less likely to teach it engagingly.
“Maths is an easy subject to teach, but it’s really difficult to teach well,” he said.
“To be a good maths teacher you have to be able to appreciate the patterns and connections that are involved in the subject. And if you teach it at a relatively superficial level, the kids just don’t see the reason as to why they’re learning it.”
According to Maher, teaching engaging maths involves demonstrating its relevance as much as offering work that every child can achieve.
He described his approach to teaching maths as “low threshold, high ceiling”, with lesson plans simultaneously catering to students who are up to two years behind standard and up to two years ahead.
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