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Instigator of revolution in teaching young children maths to expand work with an ARC grant

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Published
10 July 2003
A leader in the field of developing programs to teach young children numeracy in schools in Australia and overseas has been awarded a $380,000 three-year grant to expand programs for children with learning difficulties in numeracy.

The Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Grant will enable a revolutionary maths program, which has so far only been applied to children in Kindergarten to Year 2, to be expanded to Years 3 and 4, said program instigator, Associate Professor Bob Wright, in the School of Education at Southern Cross University, in northern NSW.

“Learning mathematics is a significant accomplishment in everyone's life and therefore warrants significant energy and research,” Professor Wright said.

“While greater emphasis is being placed on numeracy in schools, significant numbers of students are finishing primary school without learning basic arithmetic,” he said. “These children have little chance of catching up during the secondary school years and of becoming numerate adults.

“Through my own work and also the work of Cath Pearn in Melbourne, Australia has pioneered the development of intervention programs in the early years of school, but there are virtually no established intervention programs in the Years 3-6 range.”

Professor Wright will work in collaboration with numeracy specialists from the Melbourne Catholic Education Office, which has provided almost half of the funding for the ARC grant, and teachers in nine schools in Victoria. The project aims to develop specialist programs to support students with learning difficulties in numeracy, including distinctive approaches to assessment and teaching, as develop training and development courses for teachers.

Professor Wright developed the revolutionary Mathematics Recovery program for children in kindy to Year 2 out of several large-scale research projects on the NSW north coast he led over 10 years. Mathematics Recovery served as a basis for the Count Me In Too initiative in NSW schools.

Count Me In Too was initially trialed in 13 schools in NSW in 1996, as an initiative of the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET), and is now taught in the almost every government school in NSW. It is also taught in Tasmania and the ACT, and has been influential in other states, such as Victoria. Count Me In Too was adopted nationally in New Zealand in 2002, after a trial in 63 schools.

Since 1995, Mathematics Recovery has been used in seven other countries including 16 states in the US, and in many local education authorities in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

“Count Me In Too is having a significant impact on the mathematics learning of students in government schools,” said NSW DET's Chief Education Officer in Mathematics, Peter Gould, with whom Professor Wright worked to develop Count Me In Too.

“The program has provided thousands of teachers with clearer insights into the mathematical thinking of students in their classes,” Mr Gould said.

These programs were revolutionary in overturning thinking on how much children starting school already know, or are capable of knowing, about numbers, Professor Wright said.

“We realised that many children in the first year (Kindergarten in NSW) already knew more than was typically taught in that year, with some being at the level of seven-year-olds,” he said.

“That's had a major effect on classroom teaching in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere, that children in kindergarten and first grade can get to more advanced levels of number knowledge than was previously regarded as the norm.”

Mathematics Recovery is particularly significant in that it has been shown to help lower-attaining children in first grade greatly improve their knowledge of numbers.

“In Mathematics Recovery we have shown that many of the children who are in the bottom 25 per cent of the class can be rapidly advanced in their learning through intensive teaching by knowledgeable and skilled teachers,” Professor Wright said.

These programs also help the more advanced students.

“Teaching is more tailored to children's needs than in other approaches,” he said. “Also, these programs cater for the kids who aren't in the game, who are just sitting there and not getting anywhere, as well as those (at the other end) who aren't being challenged, and might be bored in maths after two years of school.

“A distinctive aspect of our approach in Mathematics Recovery relates to our methods of detailed observation of children's problem-solving behaviour. This leads to the development of viable explanations of what the children know, and what it makes sense to teach them.”

(Professor Wright's two textbooks on the Mathematics Recovery program are Teaching Number: Advancing Skills and Strategies; and Early Numeracy: Assessment for Teaching and Intervention. Both are published by Paul Chapman Publications and available from Footprint Books in Sydney.)

For more information contact: Sara Crowe or Kath Duncan, Media Unit, Southern Cross University,
Ph: 02 6620 3144.

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