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The community pressure for teachers to use text books and teach using outdated methods, along with a crowded curriculum and an implied requirement for teachers to ‘tick curriculum boxes’ causes significant tensions for teachers,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.