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How Do They Teach Maths In Primary School Now?

A couple of months ago I attended a maths evening at our kids’ primary school. The aim of the session was to provide an insight into how the kids are taught maths.

I was eager to attend as when I am helping the kids with their homework, I often wonder if the strategies I show them are consistent with what is being taught in the classroom.

It was the best information session I have attended at the school. It was presented by Mike Askew, Professor of Primary Education at Monash University, Melbourne. Professor Askew has been working with the school in mathematics over the last couple of years.

Why don’t they teach maths like they used to?

Professor Askew said this is one of the most common questions he receives from parents “Why don’t they teach maths like they used to?”. Maths is changing dramatically and some of these changes are reflected in the aims of the new Australian Curriculum:

The Australian Curriculum: Mathematics aims to ensure that students:

  • are confident, creative users and communicators of mathematics, able to investigate, represent and interpret situations in their personal and work lives and as active citizens
  • develop an increasingly sophisticated understanding of mathematical concepts and fluency with processes, and are able to pose and solve problems and reason in Number and Algebra, Measurement and Geometry, and Statistics and Probability
  • recognise connections between the areas of mathematics and other disciplines and appreciate mathematics as an accessible and enjoyable discipline to study. {Source: The Australian Curriculum}

He cited research which shows that kids in early years learn better by measuring first not counting. He encouraged parents to start early on using language like fill half of the bowl with water, divide the lollies into three groups etc.

Prof Askew highlighted cooking as one of the best opportunities where you can start building your children’s mathematical skills. While cooking with you they can help measure, compare and estimate quantities.

A legacy from the old method of teaching is that when in doubt kids add. No longer are kids given sheets of addition to work through, they are more likely to be given worded problems which means they need to use more problem solving skills to determine what they need to calculate.

Professor Askew brought up an issue which was something that I hadn’t really thought about. He commented that parents will often say they want their kids to be readers or writers, but rarely do you hear parents say they want their kids to be mathematicians (and he didn’t mean this in the professional sense, but a student who loves maths and is competent at it).

We need to engender that they can learn maths and continue learning more. To do this a more flexible approach to teaching is required.

Flexible methods

With this background Professor Askew, explained that this is the approach they are taking at our primary school. They are teaching the children that you need to adjust what you are doing depending on the numbers you are working with. The kids are taught that there is more than one way to arrive at the answer.

This is very different from how I was taught at school. We were all taught one way to solve a type of problem and were marked down if we did not use the appropriate method.

The children are encouraged to use one of these four methods and I will do my best to explain them through example!

Ten method

Method based on rounding to the nearest 10
9 + 4 =
9 is 1 away from 10 so kids will work out 10 + 4 then minus the extra 1 to arrive at 13


The method for compensation is based on converting the numbers to more friendly numbers to make the calculation easier.
356 – 98 =
358 – 100 = 258

Ten ten

This method involves breaking the sum into two parts, adding the tens first and then the ones.
45 + 56 =
40 + 50 = 90 then add 5 + 6 = 11 which equals 101

N Ten

number line
Kids are often taught this method using a number line. The real power, Professor Askew said comes when working out minus sums. Keep the first number complete.

The above image comes from Maths for Parents and Children Some Basics, a one page PDF and it contains some great examples of how they teach maths in primary school now.

It was interesting for me to hear that they delay introducing the vertical way of adding and subtracting, as research has shown it limits kids to think it is the only way to do it. They are now taught this method only when they really need to use it. Professor Askew said this method was not encouraged for numbers under 100.

Game playing vs rote learning

A parent asked Professor Askew about why kids don’t practice, practice, practice sums like lots of us did at primary school. He explained that kids are practicing mathematical skills daily, but just in a different and often shorter format.

You will more likely see kids playing games as a way of practicing. He then went through some examples of games the kids played and had us parents do them – they were harder than we thought and you could tell the kids would love the competitive nature of the games and see how they would help kids with their mental maths.

Mathematical resources to explore for parents

If you would like to read more about the methods they are using in primary schools here are some resources I have found on the web:

How are your kids being taught maths at primary school?


Thinking of moving? Over on today I am talking about questions to think about to help you determine the right house size for you. You can read the post here – How do you know what size house you need?