Has the Numeracy Project failed?

The Numeracy Development Project has influenced the teaching of mathematics in New Zealand. It has changed the language people use to talk about mathematical understanding, introducing the terms “multiplicative thinking”, “part-whole” and “proportional reasoning” to the teacher toolkit. It has empowered some teachers to think differently about the teaching of mathematics. It has brought “number” front and centre, often crowding out algebra, geometry, measurement and statistics, which are now commonly called the strands. It has baffled a large number of parents. Has the Numeracy Development Project been a success? If not, how can we fix it?

I have been pondering about the efficacy and side-effects of the Numeracy Project in New Zealand. I have heard criticisms from Primary and Secondary teachers, and defense and explanation from advisors. I have listened to a very illuminating podcast from one of the originators of the Numeracy Project, Ian Stevens, I have had discussions with another educational developer who was there at the beginning. I even downloaded some of the “pink booklets” and began reading them, in order understand the Numeracy Project.

Then I read this article from the US organisation, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Strategies are not Algorithms,  and it all started to fall into place.
The authors explain that researchers analysed the way that children learn about mathematics, and the stages they generally go through. It was found that “Students who used invented strategies before they learned standard algorithms demonstrated better knowledge of base-ten number concepts and were more successful in extending their knowledge to new situations than were students who initially learned standard algorithms.” They claim that in the US “(t)he idea of “invented strategies” has been distorted to such a degree that strategies are being treated like algorithms in many textbooks and classrooms across the country.” I suspect this statement also applies in New Zealand.

Strategies taught as algorithms

Whitacre and Wessenberg refer to a paper by Carpenter et al, A Longitudinal Study of Invention and Understanding in Children’s Multidigit Addition and Subtraction. I was able to get access to read it, and found the following:
“Although we have no data regarding explicit instruction on specific invented strategies, we hypothesize that direct instruction could change the quality of children’s understanding and use of invented strategies. If these strategies were the object of direct instruction, there would be a danger that children would learn them as rote procedures in much the way that they learn standard algorithms today.” (Emphasis added)

Were they right? Are the strategies being taught as rote procedures in some New Zealand classrooms? Do we need to change the way we talk about them?

How I see the Numeracy Development Project (NDP)

The NDP started as a way to improve teacher pedagogical content knowledge to improve outcomes for students. It was intended to cover all aspects of the New Zealand Mathematics and Statistics curriculum, not just number. Ian Stevens explained: “Numeracy was never just Number. We decided that in New Zealand numeracy meant mathematics and mathematics meant numeracy.”

The Numeracy Development Project provided a model to understand progression of understanding in learning mathematics. George Box once said “All models are wrong and some models are useful.” A model of progression of understanding is useful for identifying where we are, and how to progress to where we would like to be, rather like a map. But a map is not the landscape, and children differ, circumstances change, and models in education change faster than most. I recently attended a talk by Shelley Dole, who (I think) suggested that by emphasising additive thinking in the early school years, we may undo the multiplicative and proportional thinking the students had already. If all they see is adding and subtracting, any implication towards multiplicative and proportional thinking is stifled. It is an interesting premise.
The Numeracy Project (as it is now commonly called) suggested teaching methods, strongly based around group-work and minimising the use of worksheets. Popular invented strategies for arithmetic operations were described, and the teaching of standard algorithms such as vertical alignment of numbers when adding and subtracting was de-emphasised.
An unintended outcome is that the Numeracy Project has replaced the NZ curriculum in some schools, with “Number” taking centre stage for many years. Teachers are teaching invented strategies as algorithms rather than letting students work them out for themselves. At times students are required to know all the strategies before moving on. Textbooks, worksheets and even videos based around the strategies abound, which seems anathema to the original idea.

Where now?

So where do we go from here?

To me empowerment of teachers is pivotal. Teachers need to understand and embrace the beauty of number theory, the practicality of measurement, the art and challenge of geometry, the detective possibilities in data and the power of algebra to model our world. When mathematics is seen as a way to view the world, and embedded in all our teaching, in the way literacy is, maybe then, we will see the changes we seek.