Australia’s Declining Maths Results: Who’s Responsible?

Once again, mathematics education is in the spotlight. The most recent TIMMS  and PISA results highlight a decline in Australia’s mathematics achievement when compared to other countries, which will no doubt perpetuate the typical knee jerk reactions of panic and blame. So, what are we doing about this decline? Who’s responsible? Typically, the first to get the blame for anything related to a decline in mathematics are teachers, because they work at the coal face, they spend significant amounts of time with students, and they’re an easy target. But shouldn’t we, as a society that considers it acceptable to proudly claim “I’m not good at maths” (Attard, 2013), take some portion of the blame?

Numeracy and Mathematics education is everyone’s business

As a society, we all need to take some responsibility for the decline in mathematics achievement and more importantly, we all need to collaborate on a plan to change the decline into an incline. From my perspective, there are three groups of stakeholders who need to work together: the general community, the policy makers and school systems that influence and implement the policies, and the teachers.

Let’s start with the general community. It seems everybody’s an expert when it comes to mathematics education because we all experienced schooling in some form. Many say: “I survived rote learning – it didn’t hurt me”. The world has changed, access to information and technology has improved dramatically, and the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ practices are no longer appropriate in today’s classrooms. Many hold a limited view of school mathematics as drill and practice of number facts and computation. Although it’s important that children build fluency, it’s simply not enough. We must promote problem solving and critical thinking within relevant contexts – making the purpose of learning mathematics visible to students. It is, after all, problem solving that forms the core of NAPLAN, TIMSS and PISA tests.

The community pressure for teachers to use text books and teach using outdated methods, along with a crowded curriculum and an implied requirement for teachers to ‘tick curriculum boxes’ causes significant tensions for teachers, particularly in the primary school where they are required to be experts at every subject. If we consider the limited number of hours allocated to mathematics education in teacher education degrees compared with the expectations that all primary teachers suddenly become experts on graduation, then we should understand that teachers need continued support beyond their tertiary education to develop their skills. In addition, rather than focusing on students’ learning, the crowded curriculum  leads them to focus on getting through the curriculum (http://v7-5.australiancurriculum.edu.au/mathematics/curriculum/f-10?layout=2#page=1) and this often leads to a ‘back to basics’ approach of text books, work sheets and lots of testing that does not create students who can problem solve, problem pose and problem find.

This is where the policy makers and school systems must come into play by providing support for high quality and sustained professional learning and encouraging primary teachers to gain expertise as specialist mathematics teachers. We already have a strong curriculum that promotes problem solving and critical thinking both through the Proficiencies and through the General Capabilities. The General Capabilities provide teachers with the opportunity to embed mathematics in contextual, relevant and purposeful mathematics. However, teachers need to be supported by all stakeholders, the community and the policy makers, to use these tools and focus less on the teaching of mathematics as a series of isolated topics that make little sense to students.

What can we do?

There are no easy solutions, but one thing is clear. We need to disrupt the stereotypical perceptions of what school mathematics is and how it should be taught. We need to support our teachers and work with them rather than against them. Let’s band together and make some changes that will ultimately benefit the most important stakeholders of all, the children of Australia.

 

 

Attard, C. (2013). “If I had to pick any subject, it wouldn’t be maths”: Foundations for engagement with mathematics during the middle years. Mathematics Education Research Journal, 25(4), 569-587.

 

4 thoughts on “Australia’s Declining Maths Results: Who’s Responsible?”

  1. Mathematics is a language in itself with English being the medium of Instruction.If Mathematics teachers are treated like dance and PE teachers expected to do Sports and supervise other out of field areas then the system has already lost these valuable resources.Schools and in particular Principals need to understand that Mathematics teachers can teach well only if they are allowed to focus on the core business of teaching.
    Mathematics is a language in which God has written the Universe.

    How come coaching centres produce selective students and schools don’t?

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    1. Thanks for your comments Frank. Schools do produce students that enter selective schools, however we have to remember that attending a selective school is not a goal for all students and those who attend coaching centres seem to be the students who see selective schools as a status symbol. Students achieve just as well in comprehensive schools, providing they have the ability. There are also many arguments against selective schools, but that’s a blog post for another day!

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  2. Hi Catherine

    As a parent of school aged children your articles are inspiring and spot on. It still upsets me that Maths has been taken out of the HSC as a compulsory subject as everywhere you look in this world maths is there.

    I am enjoying reading your past articles and am going to use your Christmas suggestions with my children.

    Re help for children out side of school or tutoring are you able to offer any recommendations? I am thinking in particular for my eldest son who will be in yr 6 next year and needs help with problem solving. Not sure if you have a network who could assist I am in the inner west but willing to travel.

    Thank you in advance and kind regards.

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