Why do so many kids find the jump from maths in primary school to maths high school so challenging?

Throughout our many years of teaching we often share a very common experience and that is the confusion and frustration felt by families when their child suddenly begins to struggle with maths upon entering high school. Only too often we hear parents who are angry and confused because their child was in an extension class in primary school, or never ever had a problem with maths and now they are struggling to pass their assessments. Now, all over Australia, high school starts in Year 7 and many families may face this problem sooner than in previous years.

One way we can help our children through this difficult transition is by understanding why this jump is particularly challenging for some.

Firstly, there are fundamental differences to the actual schooling when we compare primary school to high school.

In primary school your child has the same teacher for most of their subjects and they are in the same classroom for most of the day. They will have a maths lessons every day and this would usually be first thing in morning (or at least before lunch time). Then suddenly they are in high school and it is almost completely the opposite. They only have maths 3 – 4 times a week and often their class with be after lunch. This makes a huge difference to a child’s ability to concentrate and absorb what they are learning. They also have to navigate their way through many new buildings to find their maths classroom and this can be both daunting and scary.

Each of their teachers will have a different teaching style and different expectations and kids have to learn to quickly adapt and work in different ways to achieve a successful experience in each of their classes. The fact that they do not have maths every single day makes a big difference as well because this means that there will be days when they do not see their teacher and hence there are breaks between learning content and consolidation. All these factors take some time to get used to and can make learning a lot harder until they adjust.

Another key difference is the sheer amount of content which has to be taught in the first year of high school compared to the last year of primary school.

So there is less time, harder working conditions and a lot more to learn. Here are some examples.

If we compare the topic of algebra, according to the Australian National Curriculum, the only “Algebra” that is done in Year 6 is:

  • Continue and create sequences involving whole numbers, fractions and decimals. Describe the rule used to create the sequence

Then they enter Year 7, their first year of high school and they cover all of the following:

  • Introduce the concept of variables as a way of representing numbers using letters

  • Create algebraic expressions and evaluate them by substituting a given value for each variable

  • Extend and apply the laws and properties of arithmetic to algebraic terms and expressions

  • Given coordinates, plot points on the Cartesian plane, and find coordinates for a given point

  • Solve simple linear equations

  • Investigate, interpret and analyse graphs from authentic data

Another example is “Data representation and interpretation”. In Year 6 the course includes:

  • Interpret and compare a range of data displays, including side-by-side column graphs for two categorical variables

  • Interpret secondary data presented in digital media and elsewhere

Then in Year 7 the course covers the following content:

  • Identify and investigate issues involving numerical data collected from primary and secondary sources

  • Construct and compare a range of data displays including stem-and-leaf plots and dot plots

  • Calculate mean, median, mode and range for sets of data. Interpret these statistics in the context of data

  • Describe and interpret data displays using median, mean and range

In Year 7 students begin calculating with fractions for the first time, they begin financial mathematics, are introduced to linear and non-linear functions and a whole lot more.

It is also for all these reasons, why your child will have a lot more homework than they did in primary school.

Their homework is an essential part of their learning in high school and it is required in order for them to consolidate the new work that they learned in class. With so much content to cover and much less time to cover it in, most lessons will see students introduced to new concepts. There is simply not enough time to slowly consolidate each concept in class and home time learning is therefore essential. The faster pace and the homework expectations will take some children a bit of time to get used to.

Another very important reason for homework in high school and another crucial difference between primary school and high school is assessments.

Assessments themselves are very different, they are longer, cover more content and for some kids, they are a whole lot scarier. In high school, assessments require a lot more preparation by the individual, whereas in primary school, most of the revision will be done in class. Starting high school many kids don’t know what study and revision means. They are used to lots of repetition from day to day, but in high school each lesson involves learning new content, so revision has to happen at home.

Being aware of the huge changes your child will face can help to put things into perspective. Which in turn can help parents to adjust their expectations and be mentally and physically prepared to support their children in all these areas. We believe that understanding is key and that if we understand how and why our children may find the transition into high school maths challenging, then we will be in a better position to support them.

Photo credit: woodleywonderworks / Foter / CC BY