Could this be the solution to Australia’s maths decline?

by Brett Henebery05 Aug 2015

Professor emeritus, Kaye Stacey, of Melbourne Graduate School of Education, retired at the end of 2012, after holding the Foundation Chair of Mathematics Education since 1992.
 
Stacey’s book, Assessing mathematical literacy – The PISA Experience, describes the design, development, delivery and impact of the mathematics assessment for the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). 
 
Stacey told The Educator that while she welcomes investment in mathematics teaching, reversing the tide away from Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education around Australia is a major challenge that requires more than isolated funding initiatives.
 
“We need a co-ordinated approach, with a long term agenda that can systematically implement prioritised actions,” Stacey told The Educator.
 
“These actions will relate to curriculum, teaching and assessment and high quality evaluation and associated research.”
 
Stacey suggested an approach to mathematics where inquiry, problem solving and reasoning feature strongly, with students “actively engaged in thinking mathematically” and exercising 21st century skills of communication, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.
 
Among the reasons educators should get students involved in maths, Stacey said the discipline’s usefulness and interest are key.
 
“Economists and governments now see a good level of mathematics for the workforce as important to the future economic strength of the nation,” Stacey explained.  
 
Stacey said dealing with workplace demands now requires people to have more numeracy than equivalent jobs required in the past, adding the use of mathematics is often in conjunction with various information systems and quality control.
 
“Increasingly, innovation also requires skills across the STEM disciplines, with mathematics underpinning them. So for the individual, mathematics is associated with life choices and nationally, with economic success,” Stacey said.
 
“A second reason for learning mathematics is that mathematics is intrinsically interesting and there are many beautiful patterns and challenging problems.
 
“Teachers try to share this appreciation of mathematics for its own sake, as well as teach students to use their mathematics to solve practical problems. So in teaching, the two reasons for learning mathematics are intertwined.”
 
The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) recently revealed that between 2003 and 2012, Australian 15-year-olds' mathematical literacy fell in absolute and relative terms – something Stacey finds perplexing.

“No one really knows the reason why. There is a lot of speculation about the reasons, but not much evidence to say it is one thing rather than another.”
 
Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, said Australian students’ sagging math performance deserves a broader conversation about what can be done to improve Australia’s performance in this area.

"It's going backwards," Chubb told The Sydney Morning Herald last week.

"Our performance has declined over the period of those surveys. That's not a good position for us to be in."

Stacey said students need to know how they can use the mathematics they know to solve “real world problems that are important to them”.
 
“We need to develop high quality student resources that can also be used as a vehicle for teacher professional learning,” Stacey said.
 
“Germany performed surprisingly poorly in the first international assessment of 15-year-olds, but after that, they initiated a co-ordinated national project of research, curriculum development and teacher professional learning.
 
“Since that time, Germany’s performance has steadily improved, whilst Australia’s has steadily declined.”
 

COMMENTS

  • by Susan Hyde 5/08/2015 10:16:47 AM

    Learning mathematics in our country has a serious image problem. As a maths teacher I cannot count the number of times I have heard a parent say, I was no good at maths, so I can understand how you don't get it Tanya/Tony. Cognitive scientists and in particular Carol Dweck reminds us of the limiting factors associated with the fixed mindset about our ability to learn maths. The idea that only some people can learn maths is deeply understood in our country, and drives the unfortunate ability grouping of students from an early age, locking them out of the full beauty and possibilities of the subject. And worse, is the gender mindset that boys are better at maths. Then there is the maths anxiety factor, reported by the ACER where they detected the maths anxiety of primary school teachers projected onto their students. PISA reports that maths anxiety is quite high in Australia. This all seems rather complicated; how can we turn this around? I wonder if a high profile publicity campaign could help kick off the conversation, yes we all can learn maths, our brains are wired for it.