Should we worry about the decline in mathematics?

By November 23, 2012Education, Music, Other, Society

There are murmurings everywhere. The Chief Scientist is worried. Ministers are worried. Industry is worried. The kids aren’t doing maths and science, but especially maths, as much as they once did. That means that numbers at university are shrinking. And that means that maths graduates will be in short supply. And maths is the basis of so many other things…  What should we do?

One can hear anxieties like this about looming shortages from time to time. The baby boomers are retiring, and areas where they are numerous (universities, for one) will find it hard to replace them, and so on. What lies behind anxieties like this is a kind of equilibrium model of society, with the area concerned serving as some kind of bottle, whose level has to be kept constant. Our society isn’t really like this, for the bottle isn’t the same size from one day to the next, and we learn to substitute other things fro its contents, and to adapt in other ways.

But let us assume that this is a real worry, and that we have to do something. What should we do? In my day we asked our teachers from time to time why we had to learn this or that. Why are we doing trigonometry, for example? We never got very good answers, because, on the ‘one size fits all’ model, we all had to learn all of this because the school system was trying to prepare us for all the kinds of work we might finish up in. OK, a lot of it we would never need, though they were reluctant to say so. Trigonometry, to take that example,  would be a great help if we were going to be surveyors, and there was once great demand for surveyors. I liked trig anyway, and it wasn’t a problem for me.

I use this case because surveyors are less numerous in our workforce than they once were, and they deal with their important and demanding work with instruments that didn’t exist when I was at school. Those instruments have their counterparts in every other walk of life that processes knowledge and numbers. What kind of maths we need to be taught at school is a complex question, and the answers change over time.

Maths-lovers will always say, and since I am one I would agree, that studying maths is good for you, and for the development of your reasoning processes. Whatever you finally do in later life, having studied mathematics will be a source of intellectual strength. But, you will say, I hated maths, or I wasn’t good at it. And that takes us back to our primary teachers. My maths-teacher father, who finished his career at Teachers College preparing teachers, believed that every child could count and process number relationships, and that the problem lay in teachers, many of whom feared mathematics because they themselves had not been good at it when they were in primary school. So they were not likely to encourage their pupils to expand their knowledge, and kept strictly to the curriculum.

He wrestled his way through how to overcome that fear, finding models in the school system who loved maths and did encourage their pupils — and sending his own teachers college students out to them to see what a good teacher could do in class. I learned yesterday that the University of Canberra is creating a new Faculty of Eduction, Mathematics, Science, Engineering and Technology, and in time its best product may well be teachers who know and love maths and science. They will be a tonic in the classroom. I had one such, and she was the best teacher I had in the whole of my school experience. Mind you, she loved us as well as mathematics, with that disinterested love for students that is essential if you are going to be a teacher of anything, anywhere.

So that’s a start. I read somewhere about Zoltan Kodaly, the Hungarian composer and music educator, who was asked to advise about the rebuilding of Hungary after the war. He said that Hungary had no natural resources much, but it did have a great musical culture, and that Hungarians would need to derive their confidence and hope about the future from that. So he proposed that the Minister of Education rule that no one could be a primary school teacher unless he or she could read music and had some musical training. That was agreed…

I wish I could say that Hungary rose from the ashes of war on the basis of music. But a variation of his proposal is worth thinking about. Why not insist that all primary teachers study mathematics to an agreed high level? We know that students who have to pass a given subject in order to do what they want, study and pass that subject, whatever it is. Provide other inducements. Give salary loadings to primary school teachers who improve their mathematics understanding, for example. Run courses through the nearest university that are geared to what primary school teachers do.

I’m talking almost exclusively here of the primary level, for it is here that kids’ attitudes to learning and to what is learned are formed. But the time we get to high school our prejudices are set.


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