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Fear of all our sums: four ways schools are solving the ‘maths problem’

Tackling parent anxiety

Nathan Chisholm is the principal of Prahran High School, which is in its foundation year with only year 7 students.

“As a start-up school we were able to do things a little differently,” he said, starting with teachers designing their own curriculum in place of student textbooks.

Mr Chisholm said his school instructs parents not to tell their children that they didn’t enjoy or weren’t good at maths themselves.

“It’s a more common refrain in maths than perhaps in other discipline areas,” he said.

To demystify the subject, the Victorian education department and schools increasingly spruik resources such as the “numeracy at home” website, which guides parents on “11 ways to maths” like constantly asking if something is “more or less?”.

Engaging the community

On a weekend earlier this year, a (fake) meteorite landed at Boneo Primary School, on the Mornington Peninsula.

Boneo Primary students arrived at school to find a 'meteorite', and were set maths tasks based on it.

Boneo Primary students arrived at school to find a ‘meteorite’, and were set maths tasks based on it.

“We printed off signs onto a big vehicle that it was a HAZMAT recovery team, we had helmets,” said principal Mandy Whitworth.

On Monday, younger students measured parts of the meteorite and older ones were asked to explain why it couldn’t be a real meteor (clue: a meteor that size would have caused more collateral damage than it did).

“It just engages your whole community, parents get a real buzz out of it. It opened really great strong conversations at home and at school, it’s about really bringing maths alive,” Ms Whitworth said.

Family maths nights are hosted at schools such as Boneo and Lyndale Greens primary school in Dandenong.

“Parents come along and we show them what we do in maths, because it’s quite different to how they were taught,” said Amy Sommers, numeracy leader at Lyndale Greens.

One answer, many routes there

There is only ever one answer in maths, but Ms Sprakel said schools are encouraging students to embrace the different ways to the answer and adopt a “growth mindset”.

“That includes the power of the word ‘yet’. ‘I can’t do algebra’ versus ‘I can’t do algebra yet’ is a big difference,” she said.


Mr Chisholm said many students arrived at Prahran High with a “fixed idea about whether they’re good at maths or not”.

For primary school, Ms Sommers gives the example of students counting how many muffins are in a four by three formation.

“Some could use repeated addition, some could count 1 by 1, some could use multiplication,” she explained.

“Obviously we want them to be working towards multiplication, but they’re all equally acceptable. It lets kids work at their level,” which she said builds student confidence and adaptability.

Making it tangible

All schools should be using physical props – rocks, dice, dominos, drawings – from primary school to drill in the relevance of maths to everyday life, Ms Sprakel said.

High school students appreciate how maths is used in designing a mobile phone or how their bus timetable works.

Prahran High School this year asked students to design updates to the school playground.

“They collaborated, made their models, and pitched their ideas to myself and an architect for feedback. Now we’re enacting some of the ideas, we’ve laid some new turf,” Mr Chisholm said.

Prahran High will introduce an additional 75-minute weekly maths class from next year, aimed specifically at setting students problem-solving tasks.

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