Bad choices for mathematics? (Eugene Gath)
It has been widely agreed for some time that there is a serious problem regarding the teaching of mathematics in Irish schools. In response to a review of maths teaching, a new initiative called Project Maths was launched in 2008 and is being gradually rolled out across post-primary schools. It is often described as the main solution to the mathematics learning issues. Here Dr Eugene Gath, Lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Statistics in the University of Limerick, offers a different view.
It is widely accepted that there is a crisis in Irish school-level maths, from early primary school up, including unqualified teachers, students leaving school innumerate, under-challenged students, low numbers taking Leaving Cert higher level maths, not to mention the low standard of maths among many of those students who actually do get an honour. Many readers may be aware of Project Maths, either through their own children or professionally. It was set up to address this crisis and is essentially the new (new, new) maths for our schools.
What it attempts to do is essentially eliminate all choice from Leaving Cert Maths and to ask exam questions that are ‘unseen’, thereby stopping the cherry-picking of easy questions and reducing the rote learning that is currently rife. That said, it is in my view a retrograde move. The main reason is that the proposed syllabus constitutes a major ‘dumbing down’ of the current syllabus as well as a sea-change in emphasis. There are five strands – one of which is classical geometry (which disappeared 40+ years ago), and another is probability and statistics, the content of which has been at least doubled. The syllabus is a complete distortion of the mathematics required at third level.
What disappears is most material on calculus – a lot of differentiation, almost all integration, as well as all vectors, all matrices, discrete maths and much more. This material is the bread and butter of engineers, scientists, economists, financiers, computer scientists and not least statisticians. Yes, it is difficult, but almost every country exposes their students to the intellectual training and rigour of calculus at second level; soon our students will not know the integral of cosine. The universities assume familiarity with this material in first year maths classes; the impact will be to force the ‘dumbing down’ of first year courses, not just in maths but also physics, applied maths, mechanics etc., thereby, for example, pushing topics such as Laplace Transforms, vector analysis and PDEs much later into the curriculum. Today some of our best students have difficulty sustaining an algebraic calculation over a few lines; the new syllabus would reduce the amount of time spent doing detailed calculations even further. The engineering professional bodies have been supportive of Project Maths, but this was prior to the publication of the full syllabus. Do they realise the extent to which this syllabus runs counter to their goals? I wonder would they rather our Leaving Cert students be well versed in theorems of Euclid and conditional probabilities or in simple integration, vectors and matrices?
Another matter of concern is that Project Maths is very resource intensive. It is more hands-on and uses lots of ‘laboratory’ equipment that will be needed in every school (e.g. students will be throwing dice to learn about probability). It will also require the retraining of most maths teachers. Even if it results in higher participation rates, at what cost in terms of content and standards? Surely there are better ways to spend any additional funding of mathematics. The government would do well to incentivise maths teaching as a career, as in other countries. The attitudes of students would change with a proper rewards system (such as bonus points, compulsory questions etc.).
Project Maths is not the answer to most of the problems mentioned, it is seriously misguided and it could be very damaging.
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