The most recent OECD Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results revealed a decline in maths outcomes among Australian students, with one in five 15-year-olds failing to achieve the international baseline level in mathematics.
The findings mean that many students are leaving school without sufficient maths skills needed for the workplace.
To arrest the slide, several of the nation’s leading maths and science groups are pushing for more emphasis on problem-solving in the national curriculum ahead of the public release of the revised maths curriculum later this month.
In a joint statement, the groups – which includes the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Mathematics Alliance, the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia, the Australian Academy of Science, and the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute – said the value of the revised curriculum cannot be underestimated and that it is important to “get it right.”
“What must be forefront in the minds of those crafting the document is the learners and the society those learners will ultimately serve,” the groups said in their statement.
“More than ever, our society needs students who are adaptable, resilient, responsive to challenges and able to handle unfamiliar situations. It is not enough to have knowledge – they must have the skills to take that knowledge and apply it to solve unknown problems and do it quickly.”
The groups added that equipping students with essential problem-solving skills should be the focus of the proposed changes to the Australian maths curriculum.
“The abilities to problem-solve, mathematise, hypothesise, and model are all skills that add worth to acquired knowledge,” they said. “Mathematics learning cannot sit in silos that focus on content and procedures. Instead, it must be something that gives the knowledge purpose.”
Since 2003, Australia’s PISA results in maths have dipped further than any country but Finland, according to a report by the Sydney Morning Herald. The latest figures released in 2019 show that the average 15-year-old Australian student was 3½ years behind the average Chinese student who took the test, and 14 months behind where Australia was in 2003.
“Adjusting the focus of a curriculum so that it emphasises these types of competencies is an authentic approach to the curriculum review,” the groups said. “Focusing on these skills as well as knowledge and content will have a positive impact on young people’s experience of learning mathematics. And it will have a direct impact on results like PISA.”
However, the groups noted that making changes to the curriculum is not enough.
“We must ensure that there is an ongoing commitment from all stakeholders to deliver effective professional development that gives our teachers the skills to teach not just the content but the skills and competencies necessary,” the groups said. “A focus on skill acquisition and proficiency development must be key drivers to a curriculum review in mathematics.”