Solving the maths problem

Since the 1980s, average maths achievement has trended downward in New Zealand - so how do we address this long standing issue?

There is mounting concern over the state of numeracy skills among ākonga in New Zealand – fortunately, there are a myriad of effective math programmes, resources and PLD available to help kaiako.

New Zealand is facing an “ongoing and long-term declining achievement in Mathemathics”.1

Since the 1980s, despite continued investment in the area, our average maths achievement has continued to trend downward. So, what gives? Why does New Zealand’s maths performance consistently lag other countries in the OECD, and how can we reverse this trend?

Read the Term 2 edition of School News HERE

Research shows that maths specialisation might be required for effective maths teaching. Anecdotally, evidence suggests teachers struggle with teaching maths confidently in New Zealand. The data shows that 79 percent of Year 5 students are taught by non-specialised teachers. Only 59 percent of these had any maths training in the past two years.2 Reports have recommended professional development programmes for teachers to improve national numeracy standards, by creating more teachers with specialist mathematics knowledge.

Image: Sympony Maths

In their paper “The big subtract: Can we improve our maths performance?” Wills and Hogan advocate for specialised maths teachers in primary schools. They believe primary school “is a time when some degree of specialisation is likely to be critical to prevent a lack of confidence being passed on from teacher to student to ensure a wider range of skills are developed.”

Though increasing available specialist teachers is a more long-term, structural goal for our education system, there are a number of agencies that provide specialised PLD for teachers and kaiako looking to improve their maths teaching. These programmes are supported by the Ministry of Education, and can help improve outcomes at the primary level.

Apart from PLD, there are a few known strategies that teachers can employ to further learning in any subject, and particularly maths. Effective teachers ensure that students’ current knowledge and interests are at the centre of learning, helping students retain confidence and build resilience in any areas they may struggle with. Student engagement with mathematics principles can also be improved by connecting the skills being learnt to real-world applications.

Image: Symphony Maths

Other effective strategies for improving maths learning include using and normalising mathematical language; effectively implementing group learning to support individual confidence; effective mathematics tasks (rather than repetitive and menial tasks); supporting connection-making and problem-solving; and using everyday contexts in teaching. These strategies and more have been extensively researched.

The Ministry of Education’s website, Te Kete Ipurangi, NZ Maths also has suggested strategies for improving student engagement with the subject. It notes the first step is to ensure ākonga feel comfortable speaking in class; one suggested method is splitting students into subgroups. Revoicing is recommended, to clarify students’ responses – reiterating what a student has said to bolster confidence and engage the other students. Using partner talk and extending response wait times are also suggested methods.

NZ Maths also has resources for tracking ākonga progress to best plan lessons for individual and group maths learning and skills development.

Image: Maths No Problem

There are several externally provided maths programmes for students. These providers range from targeted interventions for selected ākonga, to supporting high achievers to reach their full potential. Programmes may also work together with teachers to identify learning needs and develop an effective maths pedagogy within the classroom.

To learn more about how maths teaching could be supported in your school or kura, School News spoke to some providers below, who are on a mission to improve maths learning across the motu.

Janine Trembath, from the IT Education Co NZ said, “Improving mindsets around math is a key starting place for greater engagement in the subject.”

“Students need to be encouraged that they can do math, that it is useful, and to embrace mistakes. Teaching students to embrace mistakes encourages them on a journey of math discovery and enjoyment. Scientific research has shown that synapses in our brains grow when we make mistakes, and that no growth occurs for right answers.”

Mrs Trembath believes that developing a sound understanding of number during primary years would help to improve overall student math skills. “Number is the basis of all mathematics. Students need to be taught and allowed to experience what number relationships are, as well as the language around math.”

Adaptive online tools, Mrs Trembath said, can be useful in assisting teachers to reach the varied needs of their students. Online work should be supported by teacher contact time and wide discussion. “Math programmes should be highly visual, include multiple ways of learning, and aid students to develop a conceptual understanding of math.

“Good teaching programs will provide detailed student progress reports that make it easy for staff to identify the math concepts mastered, and any currently posing a challenge, as well as suggestions staff can use to support students over hurdles as they arise.”

Image: Maths No Problem

Maryanne Tipler OMNZ and Sue Timperley from CaxEd NZ said that when selecting a maths programme to support students, it must reflect the objectives of the New Zealand curriculum, and meet the needs of the students in the classroom.

“Students will truly understand the concepts being taught by engaging in practical activities and discussing their work and their reasoning. Programmes should be flexible, allowing teachers to adapt activities to meet the needs of their students. Acknowledging the different ways students learn means that a diverse range of tools should be used to cater for different learning styles.

“Student engagement is best achieved when activities and resources being utilised are ones that students and their wider community can relate to. Whanau engagement will enhance student learning and successful outcomes if they can see the relevance of maths to their future lives,” they said.

“There is a wide range of resources available to track student progress, but some are better than others. Ongoing teacher observation and monitoring of students’ work is of more value than a one-off point in time assessment. Resources should allow for teacher-student interaction on a regular basis to achieve a broader view of student progress.

“Ongoing teacher professional development will support teachers in providing a rich learning environment.”

Alex Laurie from Maths No Problem believes one of the difficulties teachers face when teaching maths is the lack of support materials for creating a consistent and high-quality programme for a whole school.

“Often, we expect generalist primary school teachers to be involved in curriculum development, meaning we expect them to create and source their own lessons. We also expect them to decide the correct order to teach concepts in,” Ms Laurie said.

“Autonomy to create a localised maths curriculum that meets the specific needs of learners in different schools is important. In my experience, though, it is easier to change the contexts of expertly designed maths problems that are given in the correct developmental sequence in good support materials.

“Conventionally, children are placed in different groups and given content matched to their perceived ability. From an early age, then, children can be unintentionally labelled as those who can do maths and those who can’t. These labels can become self-fulfilling prophecies and can negatively impact children’s achievement,” Ms Laurie said.

“Whole class teaching offers all pupils access to the full maths curriculum. This inclusive approach and its emphasis on promoting multiple methods of solving a single problem builds self-confidence and resilience in pupils. Whole class teaching builds the expectation that all children will achieve, and be exposed to the learning appropriate for their age.”


1Morrow, Neil, Elizabeth Rata and Tanya Evans. “A Study of the New Zealand Mathematics Curriculum”. (2021)

2 Wills, Olivia and Sarah Hogan. “The big subtract: Can we improve our maths performance?” (2021).

3Anthony, Glenda, and Margaret Walshaw. “Characteristics of Effective Teaching of Mathematics: A View from the West”. Journal of Mathematics Education. (2009). 2(2), 147 – 164.

Naomii Seah

Naomii Seah is a writer and journalist from Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. She enjoys crochet, painting, and a coffee or two at the beach. Her work can be found at The Spinoff, The Pantograph Punch, Stuff, and of course, School News NZ.
Back to top button