Forget about Maths experts, Australian schools need well-supported teachers

By Brian Murray

Hardly a year seems to pass by without some survey or other exposing a slip in numeracy standards in Australian schools.

In late 2016, Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, said he was “embarrassed for Australia” because of the way Year 4 students had fallen behind other countries in Maths.

Bodies such as the Australian College of Educators suggested that the solution was the introduction of Maths specialists in primary schools. Simon Birmingham agreed, even suggesting that one way to attract these specialists would be to recruit them from overseas.

But are experts in Maths necessarily best suited to improving standards in Maths?  The answer is a resounding ‘NO!’

We only have to look back through the years to our own experiences as students to see that the subjects in which we performed best were the ones in which we were taught by:

  • teachers who liked us;
  • teachers who we liked;
  • teachers who saw their job not as imparting knowledge, but as helping us to understand the subject matter;
  • teachers who were fun;
  • teachers who did not try run a regime of fear;
  • teachers who saw a lack of understanding on our part as likely to be a failure on their part to have explained the subject matter successfully.

Such a teacher was not necessarily one who was an expert in her or his subject area, but whose skill was in knowing how to help the students to learn. That was what made them good teachers.

This is why the most effective primary school teacher is a ‘jack-of-all trades’, not a master of one. A teacher who hangs a virtual sign in the classroom saying, “My job is to help my students to learn” is far more likely to succeed than one who has a dozen diplomas in a particular subject area.

One of the best Maths teachers I know confesses willingly to being ‘hopeless at Maths’. What would Mr Birmingham do? Toss her out of the back door and not let her near a Maths lesson, I suppose.

But he would be completely wrong. This teacher could, given the right tools, help her students to learn anything – from learning a foreign language to the principals of welding. Why? Because, no matter what the subject area, she would not let the fact that she is not an expert put her off. She would succeed because she has the attributes of a good teacher listed above. She would see the learning experience as a shared journey, furnish herself with the necessary equipment and get on with the job.

If we wish to improve standards in numeracy, the starting point is to make sure that we encourage teachers to become confident in their ability to teach Maths instead of condemning them because ‘standards are slipping’.

To begin with, we should do away with the notion that being good at teaching Maths is dependent on being an expert. If I wanted to improve my poor cooking skills I would far prefer the guidance of an everyday cook who wanted to help me to make progress over a Michelin Hat chef who expected me to become an expert simply because he gave me a set of instructions.

Does this mean that every teacher has the capacity to be a good Maths teacher? Well, no, because there are some teachers who we all know would be better suited to a different profession. However, what is certain is that a teacher who has the attributes of a good teacher listed above, who is good at teaching reading, art, spelling or whatever, has the capacity to be good at teaching Maths. There is no hidden secret to being a good Maths teacher.

One of the reasons for falling standards in numeracy is the somewhat ‘snobbish’ attitude put forward by some Maths experts that teachers should shy away from commercially produced student workbooks for Maths in the primary classroom. These ‘experts’ seem to believe that they are unsuitable for helping students to learn.

Using an effective Maths resource such as Oxford Maths is, of course, just one (not the) tool that a teacher needs, but, providing that it is used in the right way, it is a priceless tool indeed. That said, it cannot be denied that in many schools teachers are made to feel inadequate if they do not spend countless hours producing their own ‘tailor-made’ maths material. What a waste of precious time! Having a good student Maths workbook available is as valuable a tool for a teacher as is a good saw for a carpenter.


“Give us the tools and we’ll finish the job,” said Winston Churchill. Unfortunately the popular feeling in some quarters seems to be “Make you’re your own tools and try to finish the job, but if you fail, watch out!”

To summarise, there are only two things that are needed to prevent Mr Birmingham from becoming embarrassed again:

  • Encourage good teachers rather than berate them.
  • Equip teachers with the tools that will help their students succeed in Maths.

Brian Murray was an author of Oxford Maths Student and Assessment Books, shortlisted for the Educational Publishing Awards Australia Student Resource – Mathematics (Numeracy) category. Winners will be announced in September.




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