Mak­ing Maths Fun

The Australian Education Reporter - - CONTENTS - EMMA DAVIES

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.

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