Solving the maths problem

Solving the maths problem

Despite efforts by schools, universities and governments to encourage greater student participation in maths and science, Australia is still struggling to secure enough workers in STEM industries.

Aside from health-related professions, those who work in the trade also require a workforce proficient in fundamental maths and can apply simple problem-solving strategies, according to Professor Diane Donovan from the University of Queensland School of Mathematics and Physics.

“The ability to express these ideas in equations and formulae and to link these ideas with real world situations, such as business and finance, cannot be understated,” she said.

“Indeed, the Australian economy requires us to educate a large number of engineers and other professionals who have the capacity to apply these concepts to complex problems, working strategically with well-developed reasoning skills.”

But it also does not help that Australia’s curriculum does not make it mandatory for Years 11-12 students to take up maths and science. 2017 data from the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute showed that only 9.2% of these students enrolled in extended maths.

Compared to data from 20 years ago, this is the lowest percentage of participation rate so far. What’s more, the recent OECD PISA 2018 report revealed that Australian students’ performance in maths – as well as in reading and science – are going backwards.

But beyond test scores, Professor Donovan said that schools are still continuing to fail students as they fail to properly equip them “with the necessary skills and knowledge to survive in this technological age.”

“With our dependency on technology, it’s vital Australian students are able to perform at the highest level, showing a capability for advanced mathematical thinking and reasoning,” Professor Donovan further said.

“It’s also critical that all students can perform at the minimal level, identifying information and executing routine procedures and instructions in explicit situations – and that’s currently not the case. We need to go beyond these poor results, and there’s no time to waste.”

How to go about it

Victoria’s Education Minister, James Merlino, suggested during the Education Council’s meeting at Alice Springs in December that universities should make maths a prerequisite subject following Australia’s dismal performance in the PISA 2018 report.

But Professor Donovan points out that the education sector should focus instead on training highly competent teachers and see to it that the curriculum is more focussed on maths.

As a start, schools would have to start employing specialist maths teachers and stop making use of out-of-field teachers to take on the subject.

“The community also needs to start valuing the benefit of studying higher level mathematics, and we need to help these students transition to tertiary mathematics programs,” Professor Donovan said.

“It’s time the Australian Government and our community acknowledge the contribution of all teachers and the value of the discipline of mathematics to our economy.”

But for Jill Fielding-Wells and Kym Fry – two researchers from the Australian Catholic University (ACU) – getting students interested in maths is sure to encourage them into staying in class.

Fielding-Wells is a senior research fellow in ACU’s Institute for Learning Sciences and Teacher Education, while Fry is an assistant researcher in the same institute.

In their article published in The Conversation, the authors point to the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers Inc.’s 2008 report which found that senior students find maths too hard and not applicable to real life.

As a remedy, schools should adopt inquiry-based learning to expose these students to what they don’t know, and solve these through group discussions while teachers facilitate and identify roadblocks to their solutions.

“Although the inquiry method is student-centred, encouragement of independent, creative and critical thought must be driven and supported by a skilled teacher. This means recognising when to challenge the students and when to provide support,” Fielding-Wells and Fry write.