Programming & planning dilemmas in primary mathematics

Often when I work with teachers I am asked for advice regarding the design of a scope and sequence for mathematics. The programming and planning of mathematics seems to cause much concern, and often the reason is that there is no ‘magic fix’ or one-size-fits-all solution.

Traditionally, schools have planned their mathematics teaching using a topic-by-topic or strand-by-strand approach. Sometimes there is a formula for teaching the Number and Algebra strand for a certain number of days per week, with the other days dedicated to the remaining syllabus strands. Often, the strands are split into single, stand-alone topics. Unfortunately, there are issues with this approach. Teaching individual topics in mathematics hinders students in gaining a deep understanding of mathematics and the connections that exist between and amongst the strands. Teaching in this way can promote a traditional, rote learning approach where the opportunities for mathematical thinking are limited. Our curriculum places the proficiencies (Working Mathematically in New South Wales) at the forefront of teaching and learning mathematics – teaching topics in isolation does not promote the proficiencies.

So what’s the solution? Consider planning and programming using a ‘big idea’ approach. What’s a big idea? Big ideas are hard to define and different people have differing ideas on what the big ideas in mathematics actually are. However, all the definitions in literature have one thing in common – they all refer to big ideas as the key to making connections between mathematical content and mathematical actions, and they all link mathematical concepts. Take, for example, the big idea of equivalence. This relates to number and numeration, measurement, number theory and fractions, and algebraic expressions and equations. Connections can be made across the strands and these links should be made explicit to students.

Charles (2005) presents a total of 21 big ideas across the mathematics curriculum, however he states that these are not fixed – they can be adapted. He also states that a big ideas approach has implications for curriculum and assessment and professional development – teachers need to develop their pedagogical content knowledge to ensure they have a deep understanding of the connections within the curriculum if they are to teach mathematics successfully.

Of course, there are challenges to teaching using a big ideas approach. Teachers often feel under pressure to address all curriculum outcomes, and often this is the reason that the topic-by-topic approach is adopted. Using a big ideas approach can feel messy – it is not linear and in some ways feels as though it is conflicting with the organisation of our curriculum. However, we must remember that although our curriculum is separated into strands and sub-strands, this is simply an organisational tool and does not mean that mathematics should be taught in this same way.

My advice would be to take our curriculum, pull it apart and try seeing it differently – what areas of the curriculum have obvious links? How can you link aspects of measurement to the number strand? Where does measurement and geometry link? And how can you use the statistic and probability strand to teach number concepts? Making connections will make your teaching easier in the long run, and more importantly, will result in deeper learning and deeper engagement with mathematics.


Randall, C. (2005). Big ideas and understandings as the foundation for elementary and middle school mathematics. NCSM Journal, 7(3), 9-24.


2 thoughts on “Programming & planning dilemmas in primary mathematics”

  1. Big ideas sound like a great solution to a tendency to want to teach neat, discrete topics. They provide a central idea which requires students to use the strands in order to explore the idea. Challenging ourselves to find the connection between aspects of maths should make for really involving learning experiences.


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