Adams spoke to EducationHQ following her recognition with an NZAMT Jim Campbell Award, to share some of her most effective methods and resources.

CC: So Helen, you've been teaching in New Zealand for around 20 years, after moving over from the UK. You have worked across schools in Central Otago as part of a Kāhui Ako and have held a range of leadership roles within schools and teacher associations. Tell me about your current role at Cromwell College.

HA: I’m the head of maths, responsible for maths for students from Year 7 to 13. It’s a new role, I just started at the beginning of this year.

The ERO’s Making it Count report released in February, found that a quarter of new primary school teachers feel unprepared to teach maths. Does this surprise you at all?

Not at all, no. And the New Zealand curriculum document is absolutely useless for maths.

 It's just a whole load of words, it's not useful for me to know I'm going to be teaching decimals, how on earth do I start? Before I can teach decimals, what should I have taught before?

I don't know why [curriculum writers] are scared to say, do this, and then do this, and then do this. Even in the most recent refreshed curriculum … no one is prepared to do this. It’s all very, very idealistic, but actually learning maths is very linear and pretty straightforward to explain.

Can you suggest any more useful resources for early career maths teachers then?

If you look at the Learning Progression Framework for maths, this was a piece of work done a couple of years ago with a research team in New Zealand, in consultation with 700 people in maths and it's really, really cool.

It talks about the big ideas in maths, and then it takes you literally from the first conception of it all the way through to the equivalent of Year 10 in high school, so up to level five of the curriculum. It's really good.

This sounds like a good resource, how did you come across it?

When I was a cross-school teacher, I found out about this learning progression framework at a maths conference, and I just think it is the best thing ever, because if I come in at Year 9, I need to know what level [students] are at, and if they are not actually at the level for the average Year 9 student, I've got to know how to teach what went before, so that it dovetails into it.

But also, for any primary school teacher, it just tells you, these are the big ideas and this is the first step, and then this is the second step, and it's really clear.

It also had something called a Progress and Consistency Tool (PACT), and this is even a better thing, because when you've got your nine big ideas, you actually put in your student’s profile, where they are on each of the nine big ideas, and that comes up with an overall maths grade, if you like.

This then tracks their progress of how they're actually improving in maths over the years, and this can be done from Year 1 through to Year 10, and we can see their growth.

Children are often said to be disengaged with maths, do you have any tricks for capturing their attention?

Well I think it's all down to actually being able to do it. If I can't do something I'm going to give up pretty quickly. So let's say we're using the learning progression framework, and we're doing the topic of patterns and relationships and we can see the seven stages of it, and before they start doing that they do a pre-test and we can see exactly where they are, so I know what they know.

Maybe they're in Year 9 and they should know more, but they don't, they're here. So from that starting position, the profile of where they're at, then we can start with something they know.

They call this 'sticky knowledge', they've got something to stick their new knowledge on. For example, if I know two, four, six, eight, I can see the pattern, now let's extend that a bit, then they're more likely to engage.

So it's just getting it to the sweet spot, where they feel that they are learning something and they're getting somewhere. So start with the pre-test, and you have to differentiate it, some people may be able to start higher up and then they can be extended straight off the bat with the challenging stuff.

Why do people like maths? Because they can do it, it feels good, ‘oh I got it right’ it just gives you that little buzz. But if you can't do it then it's really brutal. It's not about tricks, it's about rigorous authentic maths that students can feel success with.

Makes sense. And how do you tackle maths anxiety in students?

I think again, you can [avoid a lot of anxiety] if they do individualised [work]. There is sometimes this sort of shaming and judging and comparison.

In the old days, when you had a chalkboard and a textbook, everyone had to learn everything at the same time and that opened a whole issue of comparing yourself with the rest of the class.

But now, with good use of technology, you can actually have a lot of the work online with individualised videos, and work that is at the right level for them, and they can work independently. As long as they do the question and they check their own answer, they'll know whether they're making progress.

It's important to emphasise that it's not about what level of curriculum you are at, but at the end of this unit of work, it's have you improved?

Particularly using the process where you do a pre-test, you ask, ‘what set were you at?’ Okay, after four weeks of work, ‘what set are you at now?’ ‘Oh you've gone up one great, you've learned something. Oh, you've gone up three! You've done really well!’.

I think that should get rid of a lot of the anxiety, because the anxiety is a fear of failing.

That sounds like a great approach! How do you deal with anxiety around tests and exams?

What we always try to do is, only assess when the students are ready. And don't make time pressure a big deal. If they need to spend two or three lessons, come back and have another look at it.

Also it’s good to have open book assessments. So that might be a cheat sheet, or it might be access to the whole internet. If the assessment is authentic enough, then they are not going to be able to cheat and find the answers of something.

Let's say for example, we've got one assessment slide which says, you're going to furnish your flat, so what are the top five items you need to buy? Well, every single child is going to choose different items, and from that, the whole of the investigation continues with those different numbers.

So having a cheat sheet with reminders of how you do percentages, or even access to the internet, that will reassure them.