Cool or Not, Maths Teaching is vital to the National Interest

In real life, girls and boys shun maths for more complex reasons.Latest studies show the number of girls eligible for an ATAR not studying maths in their Higher School Certificate has climbed from 7.5 per cent in 2001 to 21.5 per cent in 2011. For boys the rise is from 3.1 per cent to 9.8 percent.The nation’s productivity will suffer critical skills shortages without a return to compulsory maths, reforms to teaching and a recognition that maths can be cool.

“Something has to be done demanding a paradigm shift,” Chief Scientist Ian Chubb warned the federal government last year.The federal response included the $22.5 million Australian Maths and Science Partnerships Program. Monday was the first deadline for applications for funding for projects to “inspire the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and engineers”.

In 2001, NSW removed the compulsion to study a maths or science subject at the HSC. This has allowed students to shun maths. Compulsion should be reintroduced as part of a national curriculum that delivers stronger maths knowledge for students of all abilities. It is even more pressing given NSW has removed the core year 10 external exam in maths that was part of the School Certificate.

Without compulsion, myriad factors are working to deter students from maths. Beside the general perception that maths is nerdy, many females in particular do not recognise maths as crucial for careers in say teaching, nursing and even psychology.

The black and white aspect is also a deterrent. The Chubb review of research found students tended to view maths teaching as boring “because so much is seen as knowledge transmission of correct answers with neither time nor room for creativity, reflection or offering opinions”.

Strategy for HSC results is a factor too. Many strong maths performers attend selective and private schools where maths teaching strength is concentrated. Students at local schools and even those in the lower maths classes at selectives often see potential for higher marks in no-maths subjects.

With maths tutoring common, non-tutored students also tend to shy away from maths to avoid competition. Mixed with this is the increased value some cultures place on a maths education.

NSW students have many excuses to drop maths in later years of schooling, but the problem begins much earlier.

Chubb recommended the school sector “maximises interest” in maths and offers inspirational teaching.

Maximising interest in maths is difficult even for maths “geeks”. A student can do well at maths without being good at it – and definitely without being inspirational at teaching it.

So simply employing more teachers will not work.

The prerequisite for any teaching degree should be strong high school maths, although that does not necessarily mean a high ATAR. The key is an ability to teach and a strong engagement with the subject. Universities need to focus on the teaching of maths, not the mathematisation of teachers.

In the meantime, the maths teacher shortage brings its own problems. Without teachers confident in maths, some schools are quick to label students as bad mathematicians. When students who need extra maths help are placed in lower classes without any aspiration to improve, there is little chance they will progress to HSC maths or science.

These institutional factors work to switch students off maths, just as many of them and their families do the same.

A University of Sydney study in the Journal of Educational Psychology last year found ”switching off” from maths was a significant factor in weaker maths results in years 6 to 8. The student disengagement was linked to confidence in doing maths, the value they placed on it, their enjoyment level and their anxiety.

The researchers advised teachers and parents to help switch students back on to maths. For a start, they can play Mean Girls so students will see Cady dump the Plastics, join the mathletes and become truly cool.