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You need maths to tell the time, make a purchase, bake a cake, do your Internet banking, plan an outing, follow the scores of a cricket match…the list goes on. But Aussie students are slipping behind in maths achievement. What can we do to improve mathematical numeracy outcomes in our schools?

Maths is the foundation of science and all forms of innovation. It underpins our financial systems and information and communication technologies and is used to predict the future of economics and the environment. Quite simply, life revolves around maths.

But it can be difficult to understand for many students. Some say that this is because maths is not a natural activity, meaning the cognitive functions required to learn and do maths must be hijacked from mental systems meant to support other activities. It is not intuitive and so it’s not readily or easily done – it takes patience, persistence, and staying power. There’s also the cumulative nature of maths – many concepts build on one another so to learn something new, you need to understand a lot of what came before. And of course, there’s the foreign nature of maths – it looks and sounds like a different language. Actually, in many ways, it is.

It’s not surprising then that children struggle with maths. However, Aussie students struggle more than others. A recent international report found that 71.7 per cent of Australian 15-year-olds achieve the minimum standard in reading, maths and science, compared to 81.4 per cent of Finnish students. But it’s not just Finland outperforming Australia. We’re ranked 39 out of 41 for education in the world, so there are 38 other countries leaving us in the dust.

A maths-specific survey (TIMSS), found that year 4 Australian students were outperformed by year 4 English and American students; students they were previously beating. Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist of Australia (2011-2016) pointed out that in terms of primary literacy in maths, not only are we underperforming, we’re going backwards.

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"Our performance has declined over the period of those surveys. That's not a good position for us to be in."

-Ian Chubb

Why are Australian students so bad at maths?

Data has shown that 40 per cent of Year 7-10 teachers are teaching out of their field and it has been stated that a high number of junior secondary maths teachers have not completed year 12 maths studies. Additionally, many primary teachers have weak foundations, having struggled with maths in school themselves. This leads to a lack of confidence in their ability and can come across to their students.

But Peter Sullivan, Professor of Science, Maths and Technology Education at Monash University believes that it’s not so much in the teaching; it’s in the learning. We just haven’t found ways to help students overcome challenges. He points to research that says students like to engage in maths for themselves and so teachers need to step back and facilitate conversations with students. However, teachers need support and training to be able to do this.

Whatever the reason for the poor performance, experts in the field agree: maths must be related to the real world, and engaging students’ interests is vital.

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"We need to pause, reflect, rethink, reposition and introduce programs and processes which will change the culture and get people to understand why maths is important and how it can be interesting. It's not difficult if it's taught in the right, inspiring way."

- Ian Chubb

What is the right way, though?

For Alisha Vaughn, teacher at Southern Cross School, enVisionMATHSopened the door to positive teaching practices and deeper student learning.

“We needed a program that could be used school-wide to help build consistency in how maths was being taught and differentiated. We also wanted consistency in assessments. This is what initially prompted us to use enVisionMATHS in our teaching.” Says Vaughn.

enVisionMaths is Pearson’s award-winning primary maths program. It uses both print and digital components to engage students with maths and places an emphasis on visual learning. Animations, videos and interactive practice opportunities bring mathematical concepts to life. It gives teachers the power to identify misconceptions/misunderstandings in their students and differentiate instruction accordingly. According to Vaughn, differentiated instruction is one of the most common challenges maths teachers face.

“In any classroom, you’ll always have different students struggling with different areas in maths. This is why it’s great that the enVisionMATHS toolkit provides differentiation for every topic. The games help students apply their new knowledge in fun ways, and the investigation cards get them using the skills they have learnt in real world situations, further widening the scope of differentiation.” She says.

The research backs Vaughn’s sentiments around differentiated learning: setting up a differentiated classroom environment is imperative, but difficult. Perhaps it’s because most teachers who finish their degrees have never actually seen a student-centered, responsive, differentiated learning environment in action. Also, many teachers are products of more traditional education systems, and are far more familiar with chalk and talk. But enVisionMATHS not only provides the support a teacher needs to deliver differentiated instruction, it simplifies the process.

“It has a very easy to follow, step-by-step structure. Everything is set out clearly and there are a variety of concrete and digital tools teachers can use to promote engagement and differentiate learning.” Says Vaughn.

Vaughn is currently teaching year 1, but has used the program with year 3 and year 4 students too, and has run demonstrations for kinder classes. At each year level she’s found that students benefit from the clear structure, engaging content and consistency of the program.

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“The manner in which topics are presented encourages higher order thinking and deeper understanding, and we’ve have seen positive growth in our students’ abilities across all topics.” Says Vaughn.

This is no small feat. Southern Cross School is situated in East Ballina. A high number of Indigenous students are enrolled in the school as well as a large itinerant population. The average Aussie student might be lagging in mathematical prowess, but in Indigenous and low socio-economic status (SES) kids, the lag is much more pronounced.

In fact 22-23 per cent of low SES students do not achieve international proficiency standards in reading, maths and science, compared to only 5 per cent of high SES students. Furthermore, 38-40 per cent of Indigenous students do not achieve minimum standards compared to 12 per cent of all Australian students. Indigenous students are 2.5 years behind their non-Indigenous counterparts, while low SES students are 2.5 years behind their high-SES counterparts. EnVisionMATHS helped Vaughn begin to address this achievement gap.

“Within the teacher resource booklet for each topic there are further activities and instructions on how to differentiate for those students who require additional support, students who need to be extended, and students for whom English is a second language.” Says Vaughn.

enVisionMATHS is not the perfect solution to all of Australia’s maths teaching woes. Even Vaughn mentions out that she’s had to adapt certain drill activities before using them in the classroom. She also points out that the program works best with straight grade classrooms, as opposed to composites.

But the power of enVisionMATHS is that it doesn’t shy away from the key issues around maths instruction: it meets them head on. And if Vaughn’s experience with the program is anything to go by, this is a giant step forward in maths teaching and learning.

“I have loved seeing the transformation in our students’ abilities to problem solve, explain their thinking and demonstrate their understanding of concepts. enVisionMATHS has helped our students see that there can be more than one way to answer a question and it encourages them to find them all. Best of all, it links the skills they are learning to real life scenarios, ensuring students are engaged with maths and eager to learn.” Says Vaughn.

Explore the enVisionMATHS series

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