Not adding up

One bit of statistical information that we have just discovered is far more damaging than all the figures on economic slowdown and unemployment. In today’s Irish Times education editor Sean Flynn reports that fewer than 20 per cent of students have opted to take Higher Level Mathematics in the Leaving Certificate examinations beginning this week. He expanded on this subject a little more on broadcaster RTE’s Drivetime programme.

As the response to my last post on innovation indicates, there is some disagreement amongst observers as to the value of an innovation agenda and the elements of innovation that would have the most beneficial effect on our economy. But nobody can seriously doubt that our plans for recovery are in trouble if we have such a large proportion of students who are excluding themselves from any possible education at university level in science and technology. 

What is more, we have known about this problem for a long time, and as a country are not addressing it with the kind of urgency that is now needed. Despite the Minister’s opposition (and it has to be noted again that this actually falls outside his jurisdiction), the universities do need to look again at the possibility of bonus points for Mathematics. And the government in turn needs to address the issues raised in the report of the Task Force on the Physical Sciences, which it commissioned but which it has largely ignored since its publication in 2002. The latter report is somewhat out of date, but many of the recommendations are still good.

The country’s future is at stake here. We need to do more to address this issue.

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17 Comments on “Not adding up”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    Make it two subjects, maths and further maths: make honours maths easier, as easy as the other science subjects, but put the extra stuff and more into further maths and make sure schools offer it by offering a bounty for students getting honours in further maths, a bounty for the school and for the teachers.

    • Yes, Aoife, I am inclined to agree with all of that.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Two years later and the same stats emerge – and much the same responses. I actually had this idea of Aoife’s yesterday driving home after a day adding up staffing hours (post CPA of course).

      Apparently about a fifth of students switch from honours to pass LC maths papers in the exam hall! terrified that they will fail the paper and so stymie their future academic careers.

      Obvious solution is as Aoife suggests above: let everyone do ‘Maths’, a straightforward paper that will presumably prepare them for tertiary study and a life free of calculators; and then those who wish to pursue a life in astrophysics, or who are looking for some ‘bonus points’, can do another paper called Maths Plus!! – full of the scary stuff like complex numbers and difference equations (whatever they are!)

      This way both sides get what they want and we are all saved from the annual hand-wringing exercise.

  2. iain Says:

    Oh well, let’s see if we get the diverse range of comments you got last time round! Anyway, you are right that the low numbers doing mathematics to a higher level is a worry. Even for those not going on to do further mathematics this gap in knowledge is a real pity. Of course, the causes are difficult to disentangle and there are many cultural aspects, not too dissimilar perhaps to the situation in England where it is perfectly acceptable in polite company to joke about “how hopeless” one is with maths. Although often the conception of ‘maths’ is conflated with arithmetic, which if anything makes the admission even worse!

    Watching my kids education as they moved here, maths was the subject which was most different. The level of maths that they were in in their original schools in Scotland was years ahead of the school here and we saw that in the books they were using. Our daughter learned no new mathematical concepts in Ireland for three to four years. Note this is just at primary/national school.

    Now, I’m only putting this out as an observation it might not be a factor in the broader scheme of things, since I suspect by the end of secondary school here the standard and depth is probably very high indeed. For those that are still with it by then, of course.

    • When I moved with my family to Dublin (in my case, moved back) I was astounded that they were doing no science at all in primary school and at the levels they had (not) reached in Maths. But as a country we have shown very little urgency in getting this right.

      • Perry Share Says:

        (Way back) I did Honours maths in the Inter Cert and then moved to England for a year where I took O levels. They were way behind what we had done in Ireland. Indeed the same applied to most Honours Inter/O level comparisons. So, maybe things have moved in opposite directions since.

        Also, before getting into such a moral panic over this, it might be instructive to look at how many students in Ireland are in science and technology-based courses, compared with elsewhere. Maybe the situation isn’t as grim as we like to think?

  3. Vincent Says:

    Yes, Iain. You have put your finger on the problem. The jump in concept level at some point in post-primary. This very effectively halts the grasping of Maths to all those without the where-with-all money-wise to bridge it.
    The usual method of monkey see monkey do works well, but only to the point where monkey one -BSc(H),HDipED- can explain the concepts adequately. And does not take the sprog of the accountant as the benchmark for all of them.

  4. Jilly Says:

    I’ve talked about this with my partner: he did honours-level maths here, whereas I had to resit maths O’level (intercert level here) and gave it up as soon as I passed the wretched thing. And he’s not _that_ much smarter than me! We’ve come the conclusion that in our case, it’s certainly the quality of teaching. He had one of those great teachers we all remember when we have them, I had a guy who made fun of you in front of the class if you asked a question.

    My arithmetic is good – I can do long division in my head – but I never reached the point of grasping the concept of mathematics. I remember looking at graphs of equations and wondering what on earth I was looking at, and nothing that happened in my maths classes ever answered that question. Geometry actually did make instinctive sense to me, but algebra is still a genuine mystery.

    I wonder if perhaps maths is one of those subjects which, especially in the early years, is particularly dependent on teaching rather than teaching-plus-independent learning. Which would make it more expensive to do well: better teachers, smaller classes, and more contact hours. I certainly had no more time for maths at school, nor smaller classes, than I had for other subjects. I wonder if that’s the same here?

    • Jilly, I think that the quality of the teacher is a key determinant of excellence in the student. We clearly do have some really wonderful teachers in Ireland, and I am often astounded at how they can provide remedial work to deal with a wholly inadequate system. But when it comes to the system itself, we display no great urgency in correcting it.

      • iain Says:

        Yes and that was the other shock for us. Class sizes that are illegal in other countries are the norm here. School buildings that should be condemned and little materials or resources. So teachers that do well in these conditions must be really special. But we need a proper, coordinated, state (or local authority)-owned provision to ensure equality of provision and facilities we can be proud of. There are many good examples of modern, imaginative school designs, where it becomes a wider learning and cultural resource for the local community, all of which helps to make lifelong learning something desirable and pleasant, rather than just a fancy way of saying ‘constant retraining for short-lived jobs.’

        Just as in centuries past the church was the hub of communities, we should seek to have such schools as the focal point of community, combined with local libraries and sports/leisure facilities there is tremendous potential to tackle issues of not just learning, but also culture, health and social cohesion.

        Meanwhile though, back in the ‘real’ world, kids are being crammed into portacabins in the thousands this week as they are ground through the mill of the leaving cert. Good luck to them, they have my sympathy!

  5. Deirdre Says:

    Perhaps it is the case that people who do not see themselves with a future in the science and technology fields are not instilled with any value of the relevance of maths in day to day life outside those fields. There is a general tendency to avoid maths on the basis of a “sure I’m going to do law/music/arts etc in university” mentality. I did honours maths at leaving certificate and now that I am engaged in an entirely different profession notice that I have little occasion to practice/keep up the skills that I learned… sometimes the mental acrobatics of mastering geometry and algebra seems like it may have been in vain. Perhaps this idea that maths is only for science/technology enthusiasts should be addressed.

    • Thanks, Deirdre – and I know this is a common, and indeed quite understandable, way of looking at it. But I think the killer isn’t that it might be irrelevant to your career – how many English literature students who went into management quote Shakespeare daily or sit down to deconstruct Finnegan’s Wake – but rather that the effort required to win top points seems excessive. That’s what we need to address.

  6. Sarah Says:

    For me it was a tactical issue. I had to reach a certain level of points to do the (humanities) degree I wanted. I took honours maths up to the mocks of the Leaving Cert. I always knew I’d drop back once the big pressure came on when it came to studying time. I actually liked the subject but knew it wouldn’t be relevant to me (as per Deirdre’s comment). Honours maths just wasn’t worth the time when a B in it was the same as a B in Home Ec. So I think double points is a great way to combat that issue.

  7. I cannot understand the ministerial opposition to bonus points. This seems an obvious carrot to use. I also wonder whether the time has not come for the universities themselves to have general and broad basic requirements for admissions to ensure well-rounded students from the start. The US admission system for example would require higher level maths from just about any student applying to any decent university. My high school offered basics like US history, maths and English at basic and advanced levels. No one applying to the leading universities took anything but higher level classes. Maybe there should be core basics in the leaving cert, and then optional classes with the universities themselves setting basic (not course) admission standards.

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