Policymakers must ensure maths curriculum is evidence based

Speaking at the CIS last week, Australian Education Minister, Alan Tudge, has challenged reviewers of the proposed national curriculum to raise its contents from a C grade to an A+ grade.

For months, the direction of the review of the curriculum – particularly in mathematics – has been contentious and divisive.

Australian students’ achievement in the OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment has declined more consistently and steeply than in other countries in the world, bar Finland.

Among the contributing factors to the mathematical malaise is policymakers and educators have presided over the steady drop in evidence-based teaching.

Like other areas of education, a collection of faddish, progressive, and untested philosophies has gained ascendancy. Students’ need for mastery of fundamental concepts is de-emphasised and the role of teachers in directing students’ learning is supplanted by student-led methods.

Just as education’s ‘reading wars’ split educators along the lines of the science-backed phonics approach and the sociology-backed whole-language approach, parallel lines are also drawn in maths.

Largely, the ‘maths wars’ divides subject matter maths experts – who favour scientifically-grounded explicit teaching of maths – and many maths educators – who tend to favour sociologically-founded, inquiry- and problem-based approaches.

But two defining features of the latter simply don’t add up.

First, there’s a mistaken view students no longer need to be drilled on so-called ‘maths facts’ – namely, arithmetic, mathematical rules, properties and the like – because this allegedly stifles their learning. After all, they say, we have calculators to do computations. And second, there’s a flawed assumption students learn best through applications rather than explanations.

That’s why the draft new curriculum’s focus on “exploration, experimentation, and investigation” is rightly seen as ACARA picking sides. For its part, ACARA says emphasis should be on students applying their knowledge to “real world” problems through greater emphasis on inquiry and exploration.

However, there’s a problem with this “problem-based” emphasis for teaching maths – it doesn’t work.

In effect, it amounts to an expectation students will learn maths through little more than ‘trial and error’, despite the evidence clearly showing such approaches are ineffective. Studies show the “inquiry first, instruction later” approach leads to students frequently failing to grasp new concepts, or picking up incorrect conclusions from the specific applications.

That’s because the educational science has long shown it’s not effective for learners to attempt to backwards engineer and generalise new knowledge from trying to applying it first. Instead, the answer is for teachers to focus on ‘worked examples’ – systematically stepping students through solving problems with a high level of teachers’ guidance. It’s through this process – sometimes with painstaking practice – students develop and reinforce their knowledge.

And the assumption that students can become effective problem-solvers in maths without mastering fundamentals is flawed too – unfortunately, there’s no short-cut to problem-solving prowess.

It’s through mastery of arithmetic and mathematical rules that students become effective and confident problem solvers. This confirms a critical role for teachers in bedding down the basics, so students can more readily recall and apply what they know. Concerns over curriculum are not in isolation to other profound national issues facing policymakers. A decades-long shortage of specialist maths teachers has unfortunately made it a soft target for progressive influences of educationalists. Redressing this teacher shortage is a crucial piece of the puzzle for policymakers to solve.

Just 16 per cent of Australian primary teachers have a maths background (compared to 66 per cent in high-performing Singapore). That’s despite evidence students who have an expert teacher in maths achieve significantly higher than those without. In addition to these educational dividends, more expert maths teachers will provide a further buttress against fads making it to the classroom.

Policymakers will do well to learn lessons from the reading wars. Ultimately, the side that backed scientifically proven teaching approaches eventually won but at great cost. A protracted maths war can be avoided if policymakers follow the educational science. Few matters are of greater importance than turning around Australia’s trajectory in maths. Our students are counting on policymakers backing in evidence and doing away with educational fads.