The latest OECD PISA results from 2015 were released last night (Tuesday 6 December 2016). PISA stands for Program for International Student Assessment. Data is collected from 72 countries and about 540 000 students are tested. The maths questions test 15 year old students’ ability to apply their maths facts to realistic problems.

Another disaster for Australia. Our students’ performance has declined over the last 15 years. Only 55% of 15 year olds achieved the National Proficient standard in maths.

In the Financial Review this morning, Dr Jennifer Buckingham writes: “These findings suggest Australia’s fixation with discovery or inquiry-based learning approaches to improve achievement with maths and science by developing student “engagement” – often at the expense of learning facts and concepts – is misguided and detrimental. Confidence in these domains is the result of competence, not the reverse”. She continues: “This sounds bad because it is. The deterioration in Australia’s performance is because we now have more low-performing students and fewer high-performing students. Students in the low-performing group have achievement levels “too low to enable them to participate effectively and productively in life”.

In my working life I have seen maths performance falling year by year in these tests. Something is not working in the way we teach mathematics. I am disappointed that researchers will now blame “inquiry-based learning” when problem-solving is the complete and utter goal of mathematics teaching and learning. Facts without a context mean nothing. We need sound basic facts taught and we need facts to be applied in realistic problems. It is not an either or situation. Test data is only one aspect of life as a student learning mathematics. It is only one aspect of a teacher teaching mathematics.

But these test results do tell us something and we should not ignore it. What is it we can do better to help our students understand, apply and enjoy their mathematics? How can we as Primary Teachers help students perform better in the future?

Singapore topped all 3 subjects, with a score of 564 in maths. The top 5 places were all Asian countries. The OECD average maths score was 490. But even Singapore now agrees that it puts too much pressure on its students. We don’t want to copy Singapore teaching techniques just so we can improve test scores. We want to improve student understanding, application and enjoyment all round.

- To work out solutions to real life maths problems you need a detailed set of known maths facts built into your primary school brain. We need to develop automatic recall in more students. Waiting for a calculator or google to tell you how to solve a problem is not the answer.

- We need a wide range of problem solving strategies at our finger tips. These strategies are all well-known and should be part of any maths lesson. We need to visualise a problem, draw a table or graph, guess and check, break a problem into smaller parts, work backwards, look for a pattern or eliminate any excess information.

- We need a wide range of problem solving personal strategies too. Strategies like seeing each problem as a challenge, avoiding distractions, being patient, persevering and not expecting an instant answer, having a back up plan, asking a friend to help or enjoying exploring something new.

“Achieving greater equity in education is not only a social justice imperative, it also fuels economic growth and promotes social cohesion” (OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria)