Mathematics education at crisis pointby Bob MearsNews Weekly
, July 24, 2010
Mathematics education in Australia is at a crisis point on at least two fronts. There are insufficient qualified mathematics teachers, and many young students simply dislike the subject. Interested and talented students can be discouraged by others who are constantly negative and disruptive.
It is in this context that the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) has produced the draft consultation version of the mathematics curriculum.
The stated rationale and aims of the new national curriculum, while commendable, include a number of self-evident statements such as: "Learning mathematics enriches the lives of, and creates opportunities for, all Australians."
The Mathematical Association of NSW, however, has analysed the shortcomings of the draft curriculum and warned that these may defeat the government's stated aims.
Some of the language in the draft consultation version reflects the unrealistically optimistic expectations of a non-teacher. For example, it declares: "By the end of Year 9, students are able to skilfully use number and algebra in problem-solving situations ... have a sound understanding of linear functions and index laws ... choose appropriate techniques ... confidently represent sample spaces ... are confident users of maps and plans ... apply Pythagoras' theorem to the solution of right-angled triangles, and have a basic understanding of trigonometric ratios."
Sadly, most Year 9 students would fall well below this achievement standard. Who will be accountable? Which students will progress to Year 10 mathematics?
ACARA has identified "intercultural understanding" as one of 10 general capabilities that will be specifically covered in the curriculum. Students will be "exposed to other cultures' view of mathematics, for example, through examining [indigenous Australian] peoples' perceptions of time and weather patterns, the networks embedded in family relationships and the algebraic concepts inherent in storytelling".
In a section on "cross-curriculum dimensions", it announces: "It is imperative that all Australian students learn from the wisdom of the first Australians. For example, when considering the idea of seasons in measurement and geometry, the European tradition of four seasons can be compared and contrasted with the different constructs used by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in different parts of the country.
"The idea of using symbols as a way of generalising relationships can be enhanced by drawing on the perspectives of indigenous Australians."
This overstated paternalism by ACARA may be counterproductive by generating cynicism in students instead of respect for first Australians. Let us learn from the wisdom of the first Australians, but most of these examples would be best given in science, humanities and geography classes.
ACARA would like mathematics teachers to provide students with the engaging "cross-curriculum dimension of commitment to sustainability
and the knowledge and understandings related to Asia and Australia's engagement with Asia
..." (emphasis added).
Classroom time is at a premium; it should not be used to solve the world's problems, however engaging.
Too many secondary students have poor arithmetical skills. Many Year 10 students do not know their three- and four-times tables or how to subtract, use percentages and manipulate simple fractions.
Now calculators are recommended for pupils in Year 2 and above. The emphasis is on getting the right answer rather than on knowing and understanding the right process. In upper secondary classes, graphic calculators are used for distracting electronic games.
How are we to tackle the two-fold problem of a diminishing number of mathematics teachers and the negative attitude of many students?
The Federal Government could follow the example of McDonalds Family Restaurants, which sponsor the excellent "Maths Online" website (see report in News Weekly
, May 15), and make available to teachers, students, parents and home-schoolers an excellent internet-based mathematics site.
Such a site would facilitate teaching, skill-building, revision, assessment and record-keeping. Classrooms would require upgrading for this internet revolution, but not all work would require the use of a computer.
Students could progress at their own rate. Brighter students could be given more challenging topics. Teachers would be able to monitor each student; parents would be able to monitor their children, even on a daily basis.
Computer-aided instruction may engage the attention of boys better than traditional methods. Even where teachers are absent, students could continue to build their knowledge and skills. Assessment would be regular and more realistic. There would be an additional benefit for struggling students. At present, it is difficult to arrange for a student to repeat a poorly understood topic; but computer-aided instruction would largely solve this.
Students moving from one state to another would experience not only an identical curriculum but an identical method of solving mathematical problems.
Now this would be a real
educational revolution, and it is available today.Bob Mears is a retired Melbourne secondary schoolteacher. News Weekly readers can examine and comment on the Government's proposed new curriculum at: www.australiancurriculum.edu.au