Numeracy focus in schools

| 22/05/2014

(CNS): Improving the standard of mathematics throughout government schools is a long slow process and entails a complete shift in the way that the subject is taught so that students connect maths to real life situations, according to the Education Ministry’s numeracy specialist, Frank Eade. The first step in tackling a recognized problem across the whole system is to re-train the teachers to teach maths in a less prescriptive way and to focus on visualization methods so that children get a real concept of numbers instead of seeing them as just marks on a page. This ongoing effort has already resulted in dramatic improvements in the primary students’ attainment levels since 2011, with a clear drop in the percentage of students in the lower attainment levels and a corresponding rise in students reaching the upper levels.

Student results in the public domain are widely misunderstood, Eade told CNS. The Cayman Islands has adopted the UK assessment process of attainment levels – though not, he stressed, the method of teaching. There are 8 levels and the target is for at least 50% of students to reach Level 4 by the end of Year 6. While everyone would like all children to be reaching Level 4 or above by that stage, that is not a reasonable expected result in any country, he explained.

Eade said that when he arrived two and half years ago in 2011 the percentage of students at Key Stage 2 (end of Year 6) who were at Level 2 or below in maths was 23%. In 2013, this had dropped to 13%. Correspondingly, the percentage of students at Level 4 or above has increased from 25% in 2011 to 40% just two years later in 2013.

In the UK around 80% of the children are – on paper – reaching Level 4 in maths by the end of primary school, but Eade said that the immense pressure on schools and teachers in Britain to improve statistics had warped the results, which have been achieved through a ‘production line’ mentality.

“In the UK Year 6 has become a revision factory,” he said. “The results are a bit of an illusion and no longer a true reflection of the students’ attainment levels.” Many secondary schools in the UK no longer use the assessment levels to gauge new Year 7 students’ abilities and give them CAT tests instead, he explained. “When you look at the international tables, which focus on problem solving, England has not improved at all in the last 10 or 15 years. So we have to be careful about how we look at the data.”

Countries that do very well on international tables, such as Singapore and Japan, teach maths in a very similar way to the methods now being introduced in Cayman schools.

The Cayman Islands Ministry of Education’s goal, he said, is to avoid the false results of the UK and to achieve real improvements in maths that will enable students to continue to implement what they have learned beyond school, in their lives and in their jobs, and for somethough higher learning. Not gaining a firm grasp of maths at primary level can later become an impediment for even the more academic students who go on to study such subjects as engineering, science, finance and economics, as well as mathematics itself, at university.

“Mathematics is rather peculiar subject. What you want students to do is to be able to solve problems that are mathematical but also about the world around them, but it is often taught in a very prescriptive way and the children end up not being comfortable with it and not being good problem solvers,” Eade explained. “Not being able to use mathematics to solve problems in everyday situations is because of the way mathematics is taught. Generally, in most countries, it is a set of rules handed down by the teacher and the children are taught to go through the motions without really thinking about it all.”

To illustrate, he gave a typical fraction problem: three sandwiches to divide between four children. Students who have not been taught effectively will not immediately work out that each child will get three quarters of a sandwich each.

“What they may do instead is to cut two of them in half, so each child now has half a sandwich, then cut the last one into four. So then they each have a half plus a quarter. But they may still not realise that they each have three quarters of a sandwich. Other kids may cut each sandwich into four and then work out that they each have one quarter from each of the three sandwiches.

“But my concern as the teacher is that they haven't used their knowledge of fractions at all, so the knowledge of mathematics has not been transferred to a real situation. They're not looking at those sandwiches and saying that's 3÷4, which is three quarters. It's a disconnect between what they are learning and how to apply it,” he said.

“When I started teaching, I was shocked because I would teach the children mathematics but they could not apply it into word problems. It was as if it was two completely different worlds – and that's the big issue for teachers: how to connect these two worlds.”

Eade explained that he has implemented a ‘Leaders in Primary Maths’ program, where each school has either one or two teachers that he has trained in mathematics education, to understand the mathematics curriculum and how to teach it in the primary school. Those maths leaders are now supporting other teachers in their schools and working with them in the classroom. Eade has also created units in each year group across the system.

“Primary school teachers are generalists, not specialists, and they are quite often teaching a curriculum that they don't fully understand,” he said. Before these initiatives were implemented, some teachers lacked confidence in the mathematics they taught, but this is changing, he stressed.

The primary focus for the last two years has been Years 1 through Year 6 and there is now a far greater emphasis on visualization in the teaching of maths. An example of this is the numbers on dice.

“People naturally recognise them as groups of numbers instead of counting each dot. In the primary schools, when I show kids two groups of five like the numbers on the dice, I want them to know that is 10 and not have to count 1, 2, 3 … up to 10. If I show a student a number line, 1 up to 100, and ask them where 50 is, I want them to know that is in the middle rather than count up to 50, which is what was happening.”

For the students that need particular help, 42 teachers so far, including five from the secondary system, have been given a 10-day training course to do remedial work in a ‘Maths Recovery’ programme, which is largely sponsored by the Cayman Islands Society of Professional Accountants (CISPA).

“It's much easier if the child is taught properly from the word go, but it is possibleto catch up. However, the older they are the harder it is, and that's why catching problems early is important,” Eade noted.

“My experience is that the teachers here work very hard and it is not helpful to blame them; it's just the way that they were taught to teach,” he said, noting that the teachers have been very receptive to the changes he is making. One thing they have to learn to do, Eade said, is to hold back and get the students to talk through what they are doing.

For the next generation of educators, Eade and two other teachers from the Cayman system are lecturing at the University College of the Cayman Islands as part of its teacher training course.

“The problems are not going to change overnight,” he said. “When I arrived, I explained that this was going to be a very long term project. There is a general agreement that there needs to be some continuity and that what is happening is the right thing. It’s important that the process does not keep getting de-railed,” Eade said. “There are still problems but it is getting better.”

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  1. Anonymous says:

    The only real fact about this new Numeracy Approach is the fact that it has been successful in Japan and Sigapore. Please be real, this new approach to math was taught to what clibre/ backgroud of students? Is this new approach to math conducive/relevant or applicable to students in the Cayman Islands; especially those in the public schools? It is a fact that we have a serious behavioral problem in the public schools. It is also a fact that there is a percentage ( don't know how much) of children that have  psychological, psychiatric, mental, ADDH and other impediments to learning.  Realistically, can this new approach to numeracy be successful in the Cayman Islands Public Schools?  Time will tell.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Hmm. The chances of this succeeding are at best only 60/60…

  3. Anonymous says:

    When is a level 4 not a level 4?

    It is funny that the levels and assesments Mr. Eade dismisses in the UK are the ones used to measure achievement in Cayman.

    40% of Caymanian children at level 4 or above at the end of year 6 vs. 80% of UK children…meaning 0.6 are below average (approximately – depending on thebanding within level 4) but the Ministry will be satisfied when it is just 1/2?

    Is this a mathematical problem or a philosophical one?

    • Anonymous says:

      It is an attitude, acceptance of responsibility and facing reality problem.

  4. MEM says:

    So now that we are focusing on Numeracy, will Literacy get left on the sidelines the way Numeracy did years ago when Literacy was at the forefront of teaching? Is there no way to get the focus on both, or can our education system only handle one task at a time??? Years ago it was all about learning to read and math stood by, recently it has been all about maths so I am hoping that we do not allow literacy to standby, I'm sure every criminal in Northward can add (gotta keep track of that illegal income when ya on the streets inna!) – but about half cannot read! What does that say to us?

  5. Anonymous says:

    This inew numeracy concept sounds well in theory but i wonder how it compares to reality.

    Singapore and Japan have done well but what calibre of students were taught with this new concept? We must understand that there are different abilities, aptitude and. Some students have mental, immotional and psychological issues. Are these students ready for this type of visualization technique in the teaching of maths. What about the USA, Canada and other developed countries?

    While agree that the visual aspects of math are important and helpful to students, i still believe that

    the concepts in theory whether mulitiplicatioon or otherwise are also important.

    Student need to be able to understand both the theory and practice to fully appreciate the problems of math.



  6. Just Sayin' says:

    Thank you Sir for doing the job for which you are financially compensated. Please ask the others around you to consider doing the same.

  7. Anonymous says:

    "Mathematics is rather peculiar subject." This is a rather odd statement. Mathematics depends on absolutes. One plus one will always be two, yet careers in the legal field do not depend on absolutes which is why you will get a lawyer defend a murderer think that he won the case if he gets his client off, guilty or not.

    Doesn't anyone think any more?

    There are 4 basic operations in mathematics. You have addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Every other operation is a derivative of these. This is why teaching basic times tables is absolutely imperative. I don't care what the new folk say because they are turning out utter morons who cannot do simple mathematics in their heads.

    I was in the bank and watched a teller use a calculator to add $100 to $50. She double checked as well.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Good grief! At this rate we will have someone who can do a national budget and keep to it in around 20 years! Progress!!!

  9. Anonymous says:

    I agree with you on the kids knowing their tables.  I was told by a young lady that her nieces who are in primary school have been told they cannot bring home their text books and that their parents were told they must not teach them the way they were taught.  They are not to learn their tables the way we learned so in essence, with the changes we are stills ending up with children who can barely read and cannot add and subtract because the schools say they have to learn a different way.   I think the old way works, even if they learn the new way as you may find that the two together helps the child to grasp the concepts.  So do not just discard what we were taught and certainly stop making our children do their homework from the internet!  Let them think, imagine, explain, comprehend so that when they become adults they can reason for themselves and with others in a positive way!

    • Anonymous says:

      I first learned the old way. Then at the age of 10 I was taught the "new math".  My parents tried to help me but they were strictly old-school. It completely confused me. I could not distinguish or understand both methods and it dogged me right through to university physics – just scraping by. So I would agree that first the student should be taught the contemporary techniques. Then, when the student is confident and conversant in the new math, they can be encouraged to understand the old math.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I have experienced first hand those changes.  It is remarkable that not only are children using mathematical language, but through allowing them to discuss the mathematics, their ability to articulate their thoughts has improved also.  What a joy to see children engage and what a remarkable achievement in such a short space of time.  There is a way to go yet but for the first time in my teaching career in Cayman I am hopeful.


  11. Anonymous says:

    Thank you Mr. Eade keep up the great work and continue to impart the neecssary skills and learning to our teachers and indeed our children.  I recall up until 2012/2013 schoolyear CISPA was heavily involved within various primary school by way of having their members voluneer a hour per week assisting and providing support to student/teachers at various levels throughout.  I don't beleive the initiative is ongoing to date but would highly recommend where possible if CISPA would consider continuing with such an important program.

  12. Diogenes says:

    I see – the UK results should be ignored because, in your opinion, they are simply passing exams, not understanding concepts. Lets ignore inconvenient facts based on a subjective opion.  In the real world if you have two applicants for a job and one has an examination pass and the other does not….But lets go with your version of reality for a minute.  Tell me, what are the pass rates in Japan, where you consider the children do understand the concepts.  Are they 40% or lower? 

    CNS: You're mixing things up a bit. The exam passes that employers will be looking for are the ones that are taken at the end of secondary school. This article discusses the need to build a firmer foundation for maths in the primary years so the kids are better able to pass those external exams later on. Here are the international tables so you can see where the UK is compared to Japan.

    PISA 2012 (assessing the abilities of 15-year-olds)

    TIMMS 2011 assessment of maths achievements of students in 63 countries.

    • Anonymous says:

      If only 40% are passing those exams at primary level then when is the gap to be closed?  At JGHS or CHHS or when given another chance at CIFEC?

      The Ministry's target is only to raise the rate to 50%.  That means it is acceptable for half of children to leave primary school below average.  What percentage of children leave primary school in Japan below-average?   

  13. Anonymous says:

    I can think of four reasons why there are problems: the lack of resources, the lack of an appropriate curriculum and the problems caused by rowdy children.  The children have little chance of becoming a maths whizz kid like me.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Congratulations Frank – you have done some great work to move the system forward. It is wonderful to see how enjoyment of maths, as well as mastery, has improved in primary schools over the last couple of years. Still a way to go but a wonderful achievement so far!

    • Anonymous says:


      What a joy it is to see real change happening in the classroom.  My children are now comfortable discussing mathematical concepts and this has also helped them articulate ideas in a supportive environment.  No longer do I direct children to the "right" answers.  They have grown enormously in both mathematical skill and ability to articulate ideas.  But I have grown too as a teacher and many of the strategies I use in mathematics I now use when teaching other subjects.  

  15. SKEPTICAL says:

    Just start the way previous generations did by making sure they know their " TIMES TABLES ".

    • Anon says:

      Thank you 00:21. Those "times tables" are important. I don't think they do that in schools anymore. And, in my day, they were conveniently printed on the back of our exercise books. For those who are not familiar, those were the books that we did math, english and writing exercises in. 

      • Anonymous says:

        "Maths" not "math".  Let's avoid the creep of ghastly Americanisms.