Tutor and student team up to tackle dyscalculia

The basics of teaching maths in New Zealand  classrooms could be turned on its head thanks to the work of a WITT tutor – and a former pupil who struggles with numbers.

Hannah Hughson’s plight with numbers opened Gary Sharpe’s eyes to the numbers equivalent of  dyslexia and the huge impact it has on thousands of New Zealanders.

People with dyscalculia have varying degrees of difficulty with maths – Hannah’s is pronounced, but for others it acts as a hindrance to their work and their prospects.

“With Hannah as a research assistant I have been able to give back what she gave me to get first hand experience on working with dyscalculia,” Gary said.

Gary and Hannah, presenting at Otago University

The pair have accessed the Tertiarty Education Commission’s files to compile the ultimate data base showing where number catch people out. It’s the ultimate data because they had access to every student’s answers to a series of numeracy questions.

And they discovered that one of the seven categories of numeracy, proportional reasoning, is at the heart of major problems.

“Proportional reasoning is working with  fractions, decimals, percentages and ratios, and we just don’t teach it well,” Gary said.

“When he was eduction minister Steven Joyce said he wanted something  done about numeracy – but we didn’t know what the base level was.

“What we found was that the failure to grasp the proportional reasoning discipline was common and it was across the board –  regardless of whether it was a student on a foundaton course or doing a diploma.”

Similarly, the weakness trascended age, gender and ethnicity.

“If 15 lollies costs $2, how much would 25 lollies cost? That is the sort of question which stumps people.

“We are not training our teachers properly – we are poor at teaching it and that’s why we are poor at learning it.”

Gary and Hannah presented their data at a forum in December at Otago University.

Gary said Hannah had become someone in-demand after her story was published by WITT in June 2017. At the time she was studying for Certificate in Business (Administration and Technology) at WITT.

“SPELD Taranaki invited us for a Saturday session, but they only wanted to talk to her – she’s an ambassador for students with maths issues – I can’t go to the extent she does to explain her situation, it was also interesting after our presentations at Otago, people were genuinely interested in her story.”

He said Hannah had also posed the question: what if they identified the problem and employers did not care.

“So we worked with  Skills Highway and discussed our research with the Ministry for Primary Industries and were able to get employer feedback.”

They have confirmed there will be considerable employer interest in their research.

“And when it comes to statistical accuracy, we can say it’s 100 per cent because we have data from every tertiary student enrolled in New Zealand in 2016-17.”

Gary is confident the research project will prompt a rethink of how teaching in New Zealand is viewed.

“OECD reports place us down the table on maths. We know a lot about our 16 to 65-year-olds’ numeracy and literacy skills and that employers say one in five of their workers are not up to the standard required for the work they do or want to do.”

“I think the issue is a global one. New Zealand has moved up the ladder in reading, but it static on numeracy.”

He said there has been keen interest from the TEC to learn more about the research.