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Teachers feel 'very unconfident' teaching maths – Associate Education Minister

Associate Education Minister Jan Tinetti says many New Zealand teachers are struggling with their confidence when it comes to teaching maths.

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Jan Tinetti told Q+A said the confidence gap is found particularly in "those upper ends of the primary system". Source: Q+A

New Zealand’s maths results have declined over the last 15 years in international testing, particularly for Year 5 and 9 students, and Tinetti told Q+A’s Jack Tame this morning that teacher confidence is a factor.

“We have a teaching workforce that are doing an amazing job, but many of them feel very unconfident in what they’re doing, particularly at those upper ends of the primary system,” she said.

When asked why there is a confidence gap, the Minister told Tame, “I think that we need to go back to all the number of initiatives that we’ve had time and time and time again in education, we seem to see a problem and we fill the gap and sometimes we don’t necessarily fill the gap with an evidence-based solution.

"In my time, I had about three different approaches, I was teaching for 27 years, I had three different approaches to teaching maths - I’m not sure that I ever had time to embed it properly over that time," she added.

Distinguished Professor Gaven Martin agreed that educating teachers is an issue when recent national monitoring results show only 45 per cent of Year 8 students are at or above the curriculum level for mathematics and statistics.

“The international evidence shows that we have amongst the poorest prepared teachers in the world ... Only 37 per cent of our teachers have done a university level mathematics course,” he said.

Martin is the chairman of an expert panel at the Royal Society Te Apārangi, commissioned by the Ministry of Education to provide advice on a planned curriculum refresh.

He says a trainee teacher may only get 27 hours of instruction on how to teach mathematics in a year-long graduate programme and it’s simply not enough.

“They’re coming in without basic mathematical skills and they’re given such a limited amount of instruction I think that there’s no wonder there are real confidence issues.”

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Royal Society Panel chairman Gaven Martin said only 37 per cent of teachers had done a university-level maths course. Source: 1 NEWS

This was backed up by New Zealand Principals’ Federation President Perry Rush who told the programme, “one of the things we‘ve heard anecdotally is a concern around the confidence that teachers have particularly in the senior primary school at supporting the mathematics curriculum".

"We are really concerned that that is a consequence of the quality of our teacher training.”

Meanwhile, teacher union representative Liam Rutherford believes a lack of support is part of the issue.

"The two big things we hear teachers asking for is support around learning support and then time to be able to get access to good quality Professional Learning Development (PLD) and when we talk about that it’s not just the case of sending them to a website where there’s a video you can listen to about an expert or going to a one-day course. They actually need time to take on new ideas, integrate them into their practice and then reflect on them.”

All the experts Q+A spoke to agreed that New Zealand’s declining maths standards is a much broader issue than just teacher training with numerous factors identified including curriculum, funding, teaching styles and the support and enthusiasm of parents for encouraging their kids with maths.

Martin says the problem is systemic.

“I think pretty much everyone knows the system is broken, principals know the system is broken, teachers know the system is broken, and the Ministry knows the system is broken, but we are in a sort of stasis, because it’s an incredibility difficult situation to address.”

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Gaven Martin told Q+A the system is "in a sort of stasis" as it's difficult to address. Source: Q+A

Tinetti agreed a number of promoted initiatives in the last decade have added to confusion within the sector and said there are “pockets in isolation of absolute brilliance and excellence” in maths teaching but it’s not universal.

“I can’t hand on heart say that’s happening across the whole of the sector. We need to support our sector to be all brilliant.”

She conceded they could do a better job of supporting schools in terms of providing professional development, but said they need to target resources where the need is greatest.