A university student reflecting on her education recently published a disparaging critique. She condemned an “antiquated” model of education for rewarding her for learning maths and science instead of things she considers more important, such as “how to do a tax return, change a tyre, pay off a car, buy a house, nail a job interview, do CPR, start a self-managed super fund.”
As teacher and blogger Michael Salter pointed out, why shouldn’t this list of life skills include “caring for an infant? Caring for an aged parent? Sterilising formula bottles? Filling in a Centrelink form? Clearing leaves from gutters? Unclogging drains? Cooking a family meal? Or a thousand other things?”
The idea that our highly educated teachers should be spending precious class time on things that could easily be learned on a weekend from a relative or friend, or indeed by watching a Youtube video, is both nihilistic and utilitarian — two things a true education is not.
It would be easy to dismiss these sentiments as typically youthful lack of appreciation for the privilege of an academic education, but they are also endorsed by people of influence in education policy.
Schools and expert teachers exist to give children knowledge and skills that they are unable or unlikely to learn otherwise. While it might be true that many students will not make use of the maths they learned beyond Year 8, there is no way of knowing in advance which students will, and which won’t. Therefore, the most equitable thing is to provide all students with a strong maths education, so no student is denied the opportunity to study maths at higher levels for lack of a solid foundation in the earlier years.
Unfortunately, students — and their supporters — who think maths education is irrelevant might just get what they wish for. A report released this week by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute shows a looming critical shortage of qualified maths teachers: only one in four students currently have a qualified maths teacher in every year between Year 7 and 10, and this likely to deteriorate without immediate action.
Why does this matter? As Chief Scientist Alan Finkel told the International STEM in Education conference last week, maths is “fundamental to science, to commerce, to economics, to medicine, to engineering, to geography, to architecture, to IT… maximising your choices is not the same as maximising your ATAR.”
A good school education is about maximising choices for students in their life beyond school, not delivering a narrowly functional set of life skills.
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