‣ Disclaimer
This article contains information that is for general information only and should not be used for the basis of making any decisions regarding education or anything else. It is solely the writer’s opinion of the writer’s experience of one open day at the school and the writer’s interactions with the people present on that day. The writer’s article is purely subjective. Facts and information may or may not be complete, accurate, reliable or valid reflection of the school in question.

I encourage you to personally tour the school and meet the educators and students, form your own opinion and leave a comment here.

Best of luck with your search for the perfect school!

What is numeracy and why is it important?

What springs to mind when you think of numeracy? Multiplication? Fractions? You’d be right if that’s what you thought, but numeracy also involves the ability to understand and apply mathematical concepts in various real-life situations, from calculating the cost of groceries to interpreting data in charts and graphs. 

Essentially, numeracy empowers individuals to make sense of the quantitative aspects of the world around them, equipping them with the tools they need to navigate an increasingly complex society.

How does learning work?

Before we explore the different approaches to how numeracy is taught in Australia, it’s important to first understand how learning works. 

Learning is the process of acquiring new information. But it’s not as simple as it sounds. According to neuroscience research, when students learn new information they connect it to existing knowledge, which is then stored as networks in the brain called schemas. These schemas help our brain store large amounts of information into our long-term memory. The more connections we have to a particular concept, the easier it is for us to recall and use it. 

This means that when it comes to learning maths, we’re building a complex web of information that connects different mathematical ideas together. It also means that it is incredibly difficult to learn a new mathematical concept if we don’t have any knowledge of the ideas it’s based upon. For example, we can’t master fractions if we don’t understand place value. 

What are the main approaches to numeracy in Australia?

In Australia, numeracy education is guided by the Australian Curriculum, which outlines the key concepts and skills that students should develop at each stage of their schooling. On this system-wide level an aged-based approach is taken, where students are taught numeracy based on how old they are and the year level they are in. 

If we move a step down to the classroom level, there are two different approaches to teaching numeracy concepts. 

1. Explicit instruction 

The first is ‘explicit instruction’. This approach involves providing clear and direct instruction to students on specific mathematical concepts and processes. It often includes demonstrations, worked examples, and guided practice to help students master new skills. 

Students are introduced to new content by their teacher (connected to the previous content they’ve learnt) who demonstrates how to put this information into practice, then they work on practising these concepts themselves. Teachers also work with students one-on-one to correct misconceptions and ensure understanding. Explicit instruction includes some level of review in each lesson where the teacher goes over content learnt in the previous topic.

Research has consistently found explicit instruction as one of the most effective ways to teach, regardless of age or content. This is largely because it is based on how we learn and the way our cognitive architecture works. In order to effectively store and use information, we need to commit it to our long term memory. To do this, we need to connect new information to existing knowledge, moving the information through our limited short term memory through to our long term memory (which is thought to be limitless). 

Explicit instruction supports this process by connecting one lesson to the next, scaffolding learning and helping students build webs of knowledge that support memory and recall. The more connections we have to one particular concept, the easier it is for us to recall. Particularly if we’re regularly recalling the information.

2. Inquiry based learning 

In the second approach, inquiry based learning, students explore mathematical concepts with relatively little expert guidance, and are expected to develop and make connections based on what they learn. For example, a student will be given a specific task to complete with no information on how to complete it. The experience will allow students to develop an understanding of some or even all of the concepts required to complete the task. 

Inquiry based learning is often debated amongst experts. While it can help students think critically and develop their problem solving skills, it can take students longer to learn new concepts. Experts also argue that inquiry based learning does not align with what we know about how we learn. 

More specifically, critics of the approach point out that inquiry based learning works against cognitive load theory. This theory, which is widely accepted, explains the amount of information our working memory can process at one time. If we’re overloaded with too much information, it won’t make it through to storage into our long term memory. Some research suggests that inquiry based learning can cognitively overload students leading to lower academic outcomes. It is also difficult for teachers to implement and doesn’t suit all students.

Does the approach to teaching numeracy matter?

The most effective approach to teaching numeracy is the one that best takes into account the way we learn. 

You might be interested to know that the average Year 7 class in Australia has an 8 year spread of ability, ranging from students who are still learning to count, to those ready to complete senior maths. This spread exists for a number of reasons; missed school, disengagement in lessons, too little time spent on topics, moving to new topics before the current one is mastered. All of these scenarios can lead to a student missing some key information which creates a gap in the learning. 

When a new concept is introduced to a student with a gap in their knowledge, it can be incredibly difficult for them to fully grasp what is being taught, especially in the short time frames teachers are allocated to teach in. And before we know it, it’s time to move on to the next part of the curriculum, with many students having not mastered what was expected. 

This is how gaps start to form throughout the year and the longer we ignore them, the larger they grow. Struggling students can also become less motivated and problems compound. The age-based approach exacerbates this issue, with students expected to be able to master the content corresponding to their year level in the curriculum, regardless of the gaps they may have.

Our thoughts on the best approach to teaching maths

Our team at Reflective Learning Australia is made up of teachers, mathematicians and scientists. Our experience in education spans decades and we’re well-versed in a range of pedagogical approaches in a variety of contexts. 

This experience tells us that the most effective approach to teaching maths should incorporate both explicit teaching and personalised learning. This approach involves assessing students to determine exactly what they do and don’t know, then delivering them the content they’re ready to learn, so they can learn along a continuum mastering topics along the way. 

Explicit teaching should be incorporated into this approach, with teachers dividing time between teaching to the whole class and allowing students to practise their own work independently. Students who experience a personalised approach to maths are often more engaged in their learning and make progress at a faster rate than students in more traditional classrooms.

What to ask your school about numeracy approaches

As a parent, it’s essential to stay engaged in your child’s education. When discussing numeracy approaches with your child’s school, consider asking the following questions:

1. What teaching methods are used to teach numeracy in the classroom?

Answer: You’re looking for a response that includes both explicit teaching and personalised learning. The school should focus on the effectiveness of explicit instruction, but also recognise the importance of personalising learning to individual students. 

Key words: Personalised learning, differentiation, individualised learning, explicit instruction/teaching, guided practice.

2. How are students’ individual gaps and competencies accommodated in numeracy instruction?

Answers should include: In order for a school to effectively identify individual student learning gaps, students will need to undertake a diagnostic test and ongoing formative assessments to help keep track of where they’re at. Students should also be given personalised content to help fill in their learning gaps.

Key words: Diagnostic assessments, formative assessments, individual learning plans.

3. What resources and support are available to help students who may be struggling with numeracy?

Answers should include: It’s really important that schools have well-established programs to support students struggling in numeracy. Again, there should be a focus on a personalised approach and one-on-one time with the teacher. You can also expand on this and ask for examples of how effective their existing support programs are.

Key words: Support program, one-on-one time.

How is numeracy integrated into other subject areas, such as science or technology?

Answers should include: Schools that integrate maths into other subjects increase your child’s chances of connecting their mathematical knowledge to different concepts, supporting their long-term memory and recall.
Key words: Rather than key words, look for examples.

By asking these questions, you can gain valuable insights into how numeracy is taught at your child’s school and how you can support their learning journey at home.

Other things a school with a great maths program will have

Some other things you can look for when evaluating school maths program include:

  • Is there a strong uptake of advanced programs at senior levels, like Maths Methods and Specialist Maths? The national average of students completing higher level maths programs in VCE is 18%.
  • Does the school talk about Growth Mindset? Growth Mindset is so important to learning. It teaches students to trust the process, persisting with new ideas until they master them. Schools who praise the process of learning over outcomes are more likely to have students who enjoy and engage actively in learning.
  • Are the classes calm and quiet or chaotic? When you tour the school observe the classes and take note of whether students are engaged in learning, or disinterested. There will always be some students disengaged in a lesson at any given time, but you’ll get a feel for the energy of the room.

Understanding the approaches to teaching numeracy in Australia provides parents with a clearer picture of how their children acquire mathematical skills and knowledge. By staying informed and engaged with your child’s education, you can better support their development and ensure they have the tools they need to succeed.

* Reflective Learning is a sponsor of Melbourne Schools. Learn more about them here *

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