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Australia needs to start maths teaching earlier for success

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We’re not great at maths apparently but that could all change if we were to introduce the subject at an earlier age.

Australia’s poor OECD rankings in mathematics might get a boost by teaching concepts earlier and instilling more positive attitudes in early childcare educators, Edith Cowan University (ECU) research suggests.

Australia currently ranks in the bottom third of all OECD countries for children aged three to five years old (early learning and preschool), with students still stuck in the bottom half by Year Four.

However, Dr Marianne Knaus of ECU’s School of Education suggests outcomes could be improved with focussed and guided play-based learning.

“In recent years the emphasis has been on letting children learn through play, which is generally positive, though not always sufficient,” Dr Knaus said.

“To develop a deeper understanding of mathematical knowledge children require intentional teaching to expose them to concepts they may not learn through spontaneous play.”

In practice, this could be as easy as educators asking a child playing in the sand to decide which bucket is heavier (weights and comparisons) or see how deep a hole they’ve dug is (measurement and units).

Snack time could consist of putting fruit on a skewer in a recurring shape or colour pattern (the foundation of algebra).

“These interactions use real-world materials that children can see and feel, so when they move into formal schooling, they don’t see math as abstract,” Dr Knaus said.

“It also introduces them to the language of mathematics.”

Educator confidence needs building

Recently, in a study involving three local early childcare education centres in Perth, Dr Knaus found that a majority of educators (17 of 21) reported having a negative view of mathematics.

Most said this lack of confident was due to their own negative experiences in school with the subject, which made them unsure about their grasp of concepts and ability to use them.

However, after professional development sessions, 13 of the 21 reported teaching some mathematical concepts.

“This clearly shows that math needs to be incorporated in training courses for early childcare workers,” Dr Knaus said.

ROTE teaching in early childhood is out in China

Disturbingly, while Australia is moving to more testing and ROTE-focussed styles of learning in our schools – partly in response to NAPLAN – China is shifting to more play-based and hands-on learning.

“Too many people have a misconception about math, believing it requires flashcards or a child to sit down with a pencil and paper and do equations,” Dr Knaus said.

“Math is problem-solving, trial and error and creativity – and is all around us, in everyday activities and actions.”

As part of her research, Dr Knaus has also developed the STEM in early childhood education learning guide with Dr Pauline Roberts to help educators imaginatively integrate science, technology, engineering and mathematics into their teaching.   

‘Supporting early mathematics learning in early childhood settings’ is published in the Australasia Journal of Early Childhood.


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