# ENGAGING EQUATIONS

## Making Maths Fun

AUSTRALIAN Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) Director Professor Geoff Prince said maths’ reputation as a dry, difficult and uninteresting subject could be changed by giving kids and teachers access to really interesting, human context for the sort of mathematics they’re being taught.

“I think if we made the context clear through telling stories and showcasing individuals who do really interesting and exciting work using maths as professionals every day of the week that would make a considerable difference to perception of the subject,” he said.

AMSI School Program Manager Janine Mcintosh suggested that the subject could have a dry reputation because of students’ negative experiences in junior high school.

“I think some of the students not choosing maths in years 10, 11 and 12 are the ones who probably didn’t have a great experience in junior high school or maybe upper primary,” Ms Mcintosh said.

“To change that we need to encourage more people to become teachers who are passionate about it, and show students how exciting it can be. Often we don’t see the person behind the maths skills or the maths jobs.”

“You could be doing medical research into cancer or you could be looking working for Parks Victoria and analysing their data about pests in national parks –there’s lots of ways we can make it exciting for students that tells them the whole story,” she said.

Ms Mcintosh compared this passion to that of Australia’s celebrity maths teacher Eddie Woo.

“If we could have that [passion] for every teacher we would have a lot of better programs,” she said.

“But what we’ve got now is around 30 per cent of kids in years 7 to 10 taught by teachers who didn’t set out to do a maths degree to become a maths teacher.”

Professor Prince stressed that the teachers teaching out-of-field might not have the same passion for the subject that a maths teacher would.

“While all teachers in our schools are committed professionals, if you’re a Physed teacher or an English teacher taking the class — you don’t have that maths experience from Uni to call upon when you’re teaching,” he said.

“Every maths teacher I had at high school had a maths degree and had done specialist math pedagogy subjects at Uni.”

The question then is how to encourage people to become maths teachers?

Recently the Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham announced plans for every high school has access to specialist science and maths teachers – although the strategy to achieve this has yet to be specified.

AMSI has a mentor program which caters for schools to collaborate with mathematically capable professionals in industry, something which can inject some passion into the subject around potential career pathways.

“The industry connection is about telling those stories so that students recognise themselves in the mentor they’re having a conversation with,” Ms Mcintosh said.

“Industry can also do a lot by saying publically that they value these skills, that students should stick with maths because we’re going to need more people trained in these mathematically capable professions in the next 25 years,” she said.

“That speaks volumes to the public, to mums and dads, teachers, career advisors as well as the students.”

Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel is pushing for universities to re-instate maths subject prerequisites at school, which Professor Prince said would make it clear to kids what they needed to study to do well in engineering or science.

“Of course you can’t do it tomorrow, because there’s not enough maths teachers in schools able to cope with everybody doing the maths they need to do,” he said.

“You’d need to phase it in and universities need to be thinking about the educational preparation of future students.”

“There’s this whole public perception out there that maths is not something you want to participate in. And yet we wouldn’t say the same about literacy.”

But it’s a chicken or the egg dilemma because the shortage of maths teachers and the issue of course prerequisites are related – every maths teacher has to be a maths graduate, but if kids are not studying maths they won’t go on to become maths graduates.

While this seems like an enormous challenge, Ms Mcintosh said public perception is a bigger issue.

“There’s this whole public perception out there that maths is not something you want to participate in. And yet we wouldn’t say the same about literacy.”

“We would never admit to anybody that we didn’t like reading or we couldn’t read or that we found no value in it – and I think that’s the change that needs to be made,” she said.

Changing the public perception is another big task, but starting at the ground level, teachers teaching out-of-field who get professional support to become qualified maths teachers could help schools plug the gaps in the meantime.

“Schools need to make sure the people teaching maths are connected to the support that they need through the local maths teaching associations, through professional development, through university graduate certificates,” Professor Prince said.

“If you can’t find maths teachers and you’ve got to have people teaching out of field and you don’t support them then the outcomes for the teacher are going to be bad, the outcomes for the students are going to be bad.”

“It’s a matter of duty of care on the part of principals and school communities when they’re struggling with maths to make sure the people who’re teaching it are really well supported,” he said.

“It’s a matter of duty of care for principals and school communities to make sure the people who are teaching it are really well supported.”

30 per cent of maths teachers do not have qualifications in the subject.