The toughest question of all: why is Australia falling behind in maths?

 In AMSI in the news, News

Article by Julia Proctor, The Sydney Morning Herald, 26 July 2015

Australia’s maths achievements have been falling steadily for the past decade, including fewer students taking advanced maths. Great minds are pondering how to reverse this trend.

From the smartphone and credit cards in your pocket to the latest discoveries in the lab, mathematics underpins our society.

The general public’s perception that it’s OK to not like maths is working against us. Countries that are more successful in maths value it more highly as a society. In countries like France and Germany, you would not hear that maths is not a good thing to pursue.

Janine McIntosh, schools manager at the Australia Mathematical Sciences Institute

“It’s built into the fabric of business, commerce, economics, it’s the basis of science and all forms of innovation,” explains Kaye Stacey, Emeritus Professor of Maths Education at the University of Melbourne.

So at this time of rapid technological advance, when research indicates that 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations require maths and science knowledge, how does Australia’s and Victoria’s school maths report card read?

Even a quick look shows serious cause for concern.

A major international benchmark study (PISA) shows that between 2003 and 2012, Australian 15-year-olds’ mathematical literacy fell in absolute and relative terms. In another international maths survey (TIMSS), Australian students in year 4 in 2011 were outperformed by counterparts in England and the United States whom they were beating not many years ago.

“It’s going backwards,” Chief Scientist Ian Chubb says of Australia’s school maths performance. “Our performance has declined over the period of those surveys. That’s not a good position for us to be in.”

When compared with students in other states, Victorian students do quite well. We are among the top performers in NAPLAN, though our 15-year-olds were behind students in the ACT, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia in the 2012 PISA survey and a long way short of some international competitors.

Furthermore, students in Victoria have flocked to further maths at VCE in the past 15 years. This, despite its name, is the most basic of the three VCE maths options. The percentage of students taking further maths has risen from 40 per cent of those taking VCE in 2001 to 60 per cent in 2014.

Australia Mathematical Sciences Institute schools manager Janine McIntosh says the numbers taking intermediate and advanced maths courses are in serious decline, by contrast. Yet these subjects are the foundations for science and engineering at university.

Particularly worrying is the rate at which girls are turning their backs on advanced maths. In Victoria, just 5.5 per cent of girls studied specialist maths at VCE in 2014.

So what’s going wrong in Australian and Victorian maths classrooms? Ask around and there are many suggestions for where the problem lies.

Some cite the very high numbers of teachers without a maths background teaching maths in our secondary schools. According to Ms McIntosh, 40 per cent of Australian students from years 7 to 10 are taught maths by a teacher without a maths background.

“Junior secondary is very poorly served,” says Professor Stacey. “You need a thorough understanding of what you are teaching, and pedagogical content knowledge in maths, but a very high number are teaching without having done maths at year 12 themselves.”

But the problem may start earlier still. Many of our primary teachers, who have often struggled with maths themselves at school, have “wobbly foundations” in maths, Ms McIntosh says. “They don’t always have good confidence in their own abilities and that comes across to the children.”

But Peter Sullivan, Professor of Science, Maths and Technology Education at Monash University, doesn’t think teacher qualification is the “critical issue” that some say it is. “If schools were doing collaborative learning and planning, I am not overly concerned by it,” he says. “The real issue is maths is difficult to learn. We have not found the optimal way for students to overcome the hurdles.”

He explains that research shows students like to engage in maths for themselves and be less reliant on the teacher. “Rather than finding the student who needs help and telling them what to do, teachers need to step back and find ways to facilitate conversations between students.” He explains that teachers need professional learning and support to do this.

Others point to the time allocated to maths in a crowded curriculum as an issue, while NAPLAN may also be a problem when it comes to inspiring students in maths. “The test is making it hard for teachers to find time to be engaging,” says Colleen Vale, Associate Professor in Maths Education at Deakin University, who notes that lots of students are getting to junior secondary school, “not fully engaged, challenged or interested in maths”.

She adds that relating maths to the real world and students’ interest takes planning, teamwork and time. “The time to sit down and work it out is probably not sufficient,” she says.

Then there’s the Australian attitude to maths and our low aspirations. “To say you can’t do maths seems acceptable in Australia,” says Ms McIntosh. “You would not say that about reading. The general public’s perception that it’s OK to not like maths is working against us. Countries that are more successful in maths value it more highly as a society. In countries like France and Germany, you would not hear that maths is not a good thing to pursue. People need to change their attitudes to maths.”

So what’s being done?

Maths education is clearly on policymakers’ minds. In October last year, the federal government announced $12 million for initiatives to boost students’ interest and competency in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM), including funding for computer coding and maths summer schools. It has also announced that new primary teaching graduates will have a subject specialisation which could include maths.

In May, federal, state and territory ministers – though rejecting making science or maths compulsory to year 12 – agreed to develop a national STEM school education strategy. Meanwhile, the Chief Scientist recently commissioned research looking at schools across Australia that do significantly well in maths to see what they are doing right. He is also looking overseas at what other countries have been doing.

“We need to pause, reflect, rethink, reposition and introduce programs and processes which will change the culture and get people to understand why maths is important and how it can be interesting,” Professor Chubb says. “It’s not difficult if it’s taught in the right, inspiring way.”

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