By Deslyn Taylor, NCWQ Education Advisor, M.Ed.(QUT), B.A. (U.Q); Grad. Dip. Comp.Ed. ((BCAE)
Mathematics and STEM
There is a major problem with Mathematics Education in Australia. There are differences of opinions about the causes and possible solutions.
“Australia has a maths problem in its schools. The performance of the country’s students has steadily declined since global maths literacy tests began almost 20 years ago. By 2018, Australian 15-year-olds were a year behind where the same age group was in 2003, and three years behind those in the top-performing country, Singapore, when tested on how they apply the maths skills they’ve learnt.” (1)
Various solutions have been suggested including revision of the National Curriculum. This is only one possible avenue to correct the decline. There are different opinions on what approach should be taken – Numeracy or Mathematics or a combination of the two. Mathematics includes Arithmetic, Geometry, Algebra etc and deals with understanding numbers, measurement etc. Numeracy is the application of Mathematics to real life experiences. You need basic understandings of Mathematics before you can apply it to a real life experience so both are important. “…numeracy is the skill to be able to use and apply mathematics within a context and for a purpose. Schools need to teach both numeracy and mathematics well. Numeracy needs to be explicitly addressed and taught within maths classes by maths teachers and also as part of numeracy across the curriculum.(2)
If students do not know their basic number facts before leaving Primary School they start High School at a disadvantage in Maths. Despite Calculators and Google “Humans have a working memory, which can process a small amount of new information, and a long-term memory, which is a vast library of knowledge collected over years. If key number facts cannot be instantly recalled from that library by high school, the student will devote so much of their working memory to figuring them out, or to faffing about with a calculator, that they will not have enough left to process the new, harder material. Or, as Brown puts it, “you can’t be trying to do complex maths and scratching your head about three times five”.(1)
Perhaps more important is that children are introduced to Mathematics in Primary school and yet “if you don’t have a confident maths teacher in front of you, they’re not going to convey the spirit of the curriculum.” (1). “Studies have shown that 1 in 4 Australian Year 8 students have teachers unqualified in Mathematics”.(3) These figures may be even worse in Primary schools. If a child perceives that their teacher is not confident in Mathematics, then they too will think Mathematics is too hard and not wish to pursue it. The numbers in Secondary school seem to demonstrate this.
“The students are basically turning away from Mathematics after Year 10, thinking Maths is really hard, it’s not really fun, they think they might get a higher ATAR if they choose no Mathematics at all, or an easier Mathematics subject,’” (4)
“‘Another factor that comes into play is universities. They used to require students … to have Maths as a prerequisite [for STEM degrees]. That’s no longer the case across the board.’
Wienk also explains that with attractive salaries for Maths graduates in other industries, the lack of skilled Maths teachers can mean that schools sometimes need to choose to employ teachers who are not fully trained in the subject. The report indicates that this is happening 40% of the time.” (4)
Universities have had to reduce entry requirements in some STEM courses because they could not get sufficient students with appropriate Mathematics background from High School. Their solution is to create bridging courses in Mathematics to fill in the gaps in the student’s knowledge.
“With 75% of Australia’s fastest growing employment areas requiring STEM skills, AMSI has stressed the critical need for action” (4)
The good news is that finally girls are now performing as strongly as boys in Mathematics (8)
The key to this is teachers. For too long teachers have been blamed and not considered and supported. They deal with our most important resource – a child’s mind.
- Recognition – The teaching profession needs to be recognised for the important work they do and their influence on generations of children. “Teachers have a crucial role in improving student outcomes. We need not only to lift course and graduate standards, but also to ensure teachers are well supported so they can contribute fully as highly developed experts in a widely respected profession.” (5).
- Mathematics should be included in training for Primary school teachers so that they are confident to teach in this area and can encourage children to also be confident. This would help students cope more readily as they move on to higher levels.Mathematics is the base for many STEM subjects and the careers of the future are likely to be in STEM related fields. (7)
- Teacher workloads need to be reduced so that they can better prepare for their lessons. This is particularly important if they are expected to teach in a new area or to a different year level or with a new work programme. Unlike in other types of employment, teachers are sometimes asked to teach in an area in which they have little or no training and this is particularly a problem with compulsory core subjects where the vacancy must be filled.– e.g. Mathematics etc
- Wages should be increased to help retain teachers and in recognition of the important work that they do. Their status in the community would be higher if their work was seen to be valued. They are often blamed and seen as easy scapegoats. This was demonstrated recently when the education minister of the day called public school teachers ‘duds’. – We need to keep highly experienced, highly competent people in the classroom and not disparage them.
‘We need to work on ‘improving teachers’ working conditions and to extending the kind of respect to them that understands that teaching is hard, that teaching is complex, and that the quest for teaching quality is one that extends over the course of a career. ‘ (6)
Teacher quality cannot be measured by the academic results of their students. Many dedicated, excellent teachers work with disadvantaged or non academic students. They need support not judgement.
Deslyn Taylor (Education Advisor Qld)
M Ed.(QUT), B.A. (U.Q); Grad. Dip. Comp.Ed. (QUT)
Photo Source: The Sydney Morning Herald
The National Council of Women of Queensland Inc (NCWQ) is a non-party-political, non-sectarian, not-for-profit, umbrella organisation with broadly humanitarian and educational objectives. It seeks to raise the awareness of members as to their rights and responsibilities as citizens and encourages their participation in all aspects of community life.
The NCWQ website content manager (webmaster) posts content on behalf of the NCWQ Management Committee and its members. If you have important communications, an event of matters of interest you would like to share with NCWQ, its members, network and supporters, please contact us with details. Thank you.