Doing the math

Jennifer Buckingham

29 March 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

In the warm-up before ABC’s Q&A a couple of weeks ago, panel members were asked which subject they liked least at school. Almost all nominated maths or chemistry. Few people would be surprised at this. Maths gets a bad rap, and many school students drop it like a scorching spud as soon as they get the chance.

Media reported this week that the proportion of students taking higher level maths for the NSW Higher School Certificate has declined over the past 10 years, continuing a long-term trend across Australia. This is despite the greater academic prestige that tends to be attached to what is now called STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) — as pointed out by NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes in a speech that attracted heated debate.

The drop in students’ maths skills is not just an academic problem. A report released by Engineers Australia says the drop in participation in STEM subjects at a level sufficient to allow studying engineering at university is affecting Australia’s capacity to produce qualified engineers, and resulting in an over-reliance on skilled migration, which carries some risks. Permanent and temporary migration accounts for almost two thirds of new engineers, who are crucial in numerous areas of the economy, both present and future.

Engineers Australia recommends that students be ‘encouraged’ to study advanced and intermediate maths and science to Year 12. Unfortunately, encouragement is not enough; the seeds of participation in high cognitive demand courses are sown early in school.

The typical response to this sort of recommendation is to make maths and science more appealing by using ‘hands-on’, inquiry approaches to teaching; but this is misguided. Study after study has shown that explicit instruction is more effective, and is more likely to give children a sense of self-efficacy (these days called ‘growth mind set’) and confidence in their abilities. Once children have achieved mastery through methodical and sequential teaching, inquiry can be useful — but not before.

Preoccupation with inquiry learning as the solution to all our educational problems is associated with the cliché that traditional, teacher-directed approaches are an out-dated “industrial model” of education that is unsuited to the modern world.

The irony of this is not lost on cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham who put it this way: “Apparently schools are bad because 100 years ago evil corporations duped them into prepping workers for factories. And the solution is to emphasize cooperative, creative work, because that’s what present-day, non-evil corporations say is needed for jobs of the future. Got it.”

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