Thinking Maths program adds up to better results for primary kids

A maths program developed by the South Australian Department for Education is putting primary school students two months ahead of their peers, secondary students not so much.
Sep 5, 2018

Thinking Maths, a maths program developed by the SA Department for Education is putting primary school students two months ahead of their peers, according to the results of an independent randomised controlled trial commissioned by Evidence for Learning and conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

The Thinking Maths professional learning program for Years 6–9 maths teachers to improve middle school students’ maths learning didn’t perform as well as older students made two months less progress.

The program involves 30 hours of face-to-face professional learning over three school terms, aimed at building teachers’ capabilities to make maths learning deeper and more engaging. Teachers collaborated to design quality maths tasks, using research informed teaching strategies to encourage students’ metacognition and growth mindsets as they progress in maths learning. Interspersed is ongoing reflection and discussions and a commitment to apply program ideas in their maths lessons in between professional learning.

The evaluation of Thinking Maths found that students whose teachers received Thinking Maths made, on average, one month’s additional progress in maths; however, there were critical differences between Primary and Secondary school students.

Primary students made a promising additional two months’ progress in maths, but Secondary students’ made two months' less progress. Evidence also suggests that students from low income families may benefit more from the program than the general student population. The trial’s results were independently rated with high confidence.

This trial is one of the largest randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in education in Australia with 7068 students and 158 schools, most of which were located in metropolitan (63%) and rural (30%) areas of South Australia. The cost of the Thinking Maths program is estimated at $149 AUD per student per year, which also makes it very low cost to implement in schools.

Through Learning Impact Fund evaluations like Thinking Maths, Evidence for Learning is increasing rigorous evidence on the cost and effectiveness of educational programs and practices in Australian schools.

The findings are the first in a series of three wholly independent evaluations commissioned by Evidence for Learning to be released over the next six months.

Director of Evidence for Learning, Matthew Deeble said: “Teachers and school leaders are calling out for useful and reliable evidence. The Learning Impact Fund builds evidence that helps educators in their daily decision-making. As a result of the Thinking Maths trial, we have learnt that what has worked for Primary schools and their teachers will not automatically work for Secondary. By putting programs to this level of scrutiny, we’re going to improve our education system, help teachers have confidence in their teaching strategies and ultimately, make sure all kids, whatever their background, make the best possible progress.”

Dr Hilary Hollingsworth, Principal Research Fellow at ACER, led and conducted the trial and said: “As Australia’s premier independent research organisation, ACER is pleased to have undertaken Evidence for Learning’s first Impact Evaluation. We know that building an evidence-base is critical to identifying what really works in education. Working closely with the South Australia Department for Education to conduct this rigorous randomised controlled trial, ACER has contributed reliable and useful evidence about teacher professional learning and factors that support improved student learning outcomes in mathematics.”

Ken Lountain, Executive Leader, Strategic Design at the SA Department for Education said: "While we were pretty sure we had a good quality program in Thinking Maths, we didn’t have significant, measurable evidence of the extent to which the program was helping teachers to improve their practice. This evaluation has provided independent evidence, both of the quality of the program and of its positive effects on teaching practice and student achievement. It is also helping us to identify the refinements we need to make to the current program and to think about whether some elements of Thinking Maths might add value to other initiatives. Evaluations of this rigour enable us, and other education systems, to tailor programs to ensure the best possible outcomes for students."

For full information on the findings visit