Maths is important but should it be compulsory?

Feb 10, 2014 by Deborah King, The Conversation
Who needs maths anyway? Credit: www.shutterstock.com

Compulsory maths for year 12 students! I'd like to see that – or would I?

There was much discussion recently about making it compulsory for year 12 students in NSW to study some mathematics. As a card-carrying mathematician, you might expect me to be very happy with such a suggestion. But, to the contrary, the has me frowning.

Already, across the country, 80% of Year 12 students are enrolled in some subject. Some may say that this is a very healthy number so what's all the fuss about? Well good question.

Why study maths?

In the first instance we need to consider why 20% of students don't study maths at Year 12.

Three reasons for students choosing any subjects at Year 12 spring to mind immediately; students like a subject, they are good at a subject or, they see a reason to study a subject.

Presumably for 20% of Year 12 students, at least one of these reasons fails to be true (or is less true about maths than it is for the subjects they do choose) and it's hard to see what would be achieved by making maths compulsory for them.

Then there are students who leave school after Year 10. How do we improve their numeracy? Focusing on remediation in junior high school (and primary school) must be part of the discussion.

In February 2012, the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) held a forum Maths for the future: Keep Australia Competitive that again highlighted the decline in maths participation and skills, showing the need for "intervention at multiple points on the educational pipeline".

We need to think quite hard about what would be achieved by making Year 12 maths compulsory and how it might be done by way of curriculum design.

Make it relevant

Better ways (and definitely harder ways) to address the lack of maths participation for these students might include different teaching models, making clearer the importance of studying maths and making it relevant to a variety of areas of study.

Also increasing the number of skilled maths teachers in every maths class, not just senior maths classes, and developing curriculum models that have the capacity to reinforce concepts and remediate any misconceptions will have a significant, positive impact.

All of the above suggestions would benefit all students studying maths. The critical element to improving maths skills in students is surely the teacher in the room.

Teachers that count

Data from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) for 2013 show around 40% of Year 7-10 and 24% of Year 11-12 maths teachers are teaching out of their field.

Furthermore, 15% of Year 7-10 and 9% of Year 11-12 maths teachers have studied only one year of tertiary maths, and 62% of Year 7-10 and 78% of Year 11-12 maths teachers have less than five years maths teaching experience.

Making maths compulsory certainly won't fix that.

Calling for compulsory maths study in Year 12 entirely misses the point. The concern about the poor levels of maths skills of our high school students must surely be a concern about the maths skills of students who do study maths at Year 12 and beyond.

Over the past 10 years at least, although the total proportion of students studying Year 12 maths has remained stable at around 80%. The trend around the country has been for students studying maths to take lower levels of maths, as indicated in the table below.

Data obtained from the AMSI, in a report by Frank Barrington

Assumed knowledge

There are a variety of reasons for this downward trend, and we in the tertiary sector, should acknowledge that we are in part responsible. Many Australian universities have removed hard prerequisites as entry requirements for engineering, science and commerce degree programs, opting instead for an assumed knowledge model.

But how do prospective students interpret that phrase and respond to it? In a recent ABC 7.30 Report story Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, called on universities to tell students that maths is prerequisite for particular pathways of study. And for good reason.

When universities remove maths prerequisites from entry to degree programs for which mathematical knowledge is clearly needed, what message are we sending to schools and students about the importance of maths to these programs? Do we tell students what the consequences of not being adequately prepared in maths will be in relation to their pathways, retention and chance of success in their degree?

If we don't (and I don't think we do) why are we surprised when students make choices that will maximise their ATAR scores, since this is really what we are using as our selection instrument?

In June 2013, a workshop was held as part of the First Year in Maths project (funded by the Office of Learning and Teaching) where academics from around the country identified, overwhelmingly, that dealing with under-prepared students was their major challenge.

To date the project team has conducted 36 interviews with academics from around 22 universities across the country, and the picture emerging is that students don't necessarily have the required assumed knowledge, sometimes far from it.

A solution?

This week academics and from across mathematics, science and engineering as well as peak education bodies with gather for a two day forum, Assumed knowledge in maths: Its broad impact on tertiary STEM programs. The aim is to obtain a clearer picture of the broad impact that the absence of maths prerequisites is having in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs.

An outcome of this forum could be an articulation of a baseline for maths preparation for students wishing to study tertiary level maths and science. Optimistically, this might also be nuanced in ways that catered for the various institutional differences and the particular requirements of the degree programs of universities across the country.

Whatever the outcome of this and other debates on the state of mathematics, the problem of declining maths skills is complex and its solution will not be easy, quick or as straightforward as making maths compulsory. But then nothing worthwhile is easily gained.

At the very least the solution will require qualified maths teachers in all maths classrooms, an engaging curriculum that has clear relevance to the multitude of pathways that students might pursue, including trades and business as well as science, and clear statements from the tertiary sector detailing the essential prerequisites that students require for their programs.

One goal might be to raise the level of maths skills for all students. Another might be that choose to study the maths that they enjoy and is appropriate to their future careers.

Now I would like to see that.

Explore further: College education not always about what you have

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antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (2) Feb 10, 2014
Dropping maths as a prerequisite for science and engineering studies is a really dumb idea.
All you're doing is luring students into these areas who WILL drop out - wasting precious years of their life.

Alternatively you could lower the standards of these classes to allow these students to pass. However this would result in a lot of people who are woefully unprepared for the job market. You'd just create a lot of unemployed/unemployable people with a degree.
tadchem
not rated yet Feb 10, 2014
"At the very least the solution will require qualified maths teachers in all maths classrooms" - a condition met too infrequently in the US.
PointyHairedEE
1.8 / 5 (5) Feb 10, 2014
Just saying this out loud is why the USA's time is just about up.

If you can get arrested for hunting or fishing without a license, but not for being in the country illegally, you live in a country run by idiots.

If you have to get your parent's permission to go on a field trip or to take an aspirin in school, but not to get an abortion, you live in a country run by idiots.

If you have to show identification to board an airplane, cash a check, buy liquor or check out a library book, but not to vote who runs the government, you live in a country run by idiots.

If the government wants to ban stable, law-abiding citizens from owning gun magazines with more than ten rounds, but gives 20 F-16 fighter jets to the crazy leaders in Egypt, you live in a country run by idiots.

If, in the largest city, you can buy two 16-ounce sodas, but not a 24-ounce soda because 24-ounces of a sugary drink might make you fat, you live in a country run by idiots.

If an 80-year-old woman can be strip-searched by the TSA but a woman in a hijab is only subject to having her neck and head searched, you live in a country run by idiots.

If your government believes that the best way to eradicate trillions of dollars of debt is to spend trillions more, you live in a country run by idiots.

If a seven year old boy can be thrown out of school for saying his teacher is cute, but hosting a sexual exploration or diversity class in grade school is perfectly acceptable, you live in a country run by idiots.

If hard work and success are met with higher taxes and more government intrusion, while not working is rewarded with EBT cards, WIC checks, Medicaid, subsidized housing and free cell phones, you live in a country run by idiots.

If the government's plan for getting people back to work is to incentivize NOT working with 99 weeks of unemployment checks and no requirement to prove they applied but cannot find work, you live in a country run by idiots.

If being stripped of the ability to defend yourself makes you more safe according to the government, you live in a country run by idiots.
TheGhostofOtto1923
1 / 5 (1) Feb 10, 2014
Dropping maths as a prerequisite for science and engineering studies is a really dumb idea.
All you're doing is luring students into these areas who WILL drop out - wasting precious years of their life.

Alternatively you could lower the standards of these classes to allow these students to pass. However this would result in a lot of people who are woefully unprepared for the job market. You'd just create a lot of unemployed/unemployable people with a degree.
Soon enough what people consider math will be done by computers. Engineering will be done by computers. Software will be writing software. Your own finances will be tracked and managed by your personal AI. What math will be left for people to do? Education will have to adjust.
Doug_Huffman
1 / 5 (1) Feb 10, 2014
What math will be left for people to do? Education will have to adjust.
The computers will take over as soon as YOU are too dumb to notice the mistake. One must always be smarter than the machine being operated, and smart enough to detect its error.

Admiral Rickover would not allow a computer in his reactor plants. It took an act of god to allow my HP-35 electronic sliderule-calculator in an engineroom in 1971. Now the senior enlisted engineering watchstanders are cheating on NPS exams - and Rickover is spinning in his grave.

Oh, yeah, the OP; YES, maths should be compulsory - to weed out the weaklings too stupid to learn to think.
Nestle
not rated yet Feb 10, 2014
Math is like the computer programming - many people use computers comfortably, despite they have no idea, how to program it. Today it's more effective to know, what the computers are capable of, not how to do it by itself. To be honest, the ability to program the computer at least at some rudimentary level (scripting, automation of work, writing of macros) is much more useful in real life, than the knowledge of math. The math can be still taught on background of computer teaching in intuitive interactive way together with physics and geometry.
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Feb 11, 2014
To be honest, the ability to program the computer at least at some rudimentary level (scripting, automation of work, writing of macros) is much more useful in real life

The usefulness of the ability to program a computer is contingent upon the availability of computers. Math skills have no such limitations. And if you have math skills you'll be a better programmer in any case (university CS courses demand a very high level of math understanding).

Computer programming teaches you only a small subset of how to think logically (linear, statelike, with some abstraction). Math teaches a much broader mindset (the above, but also probabilistic/statistical, and coming at the same problem from many different directions)
phlox1
5 / 5 (1) Feb 11, 2014
Oh, yeah, the OP; YES, maths should be compulsory - to weed out the weaklings too stupid to learn to think.


I could never say-it better!
Osteta
Feb 11, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Osteta
Feb 11, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.