Criticism of Project Maths syllabus fails to add up
OPINION:SCHOOL MATHS should be one of the most useful subjects children learn, yet across the world thousands of children and young people leave school each year unable to use simple mathematical methods. Or worse – they are traumatised by their experiences in class.
This unacceptable state of affairs means that many adults are left vulnerable, not only to financial ruin but any situation involving mathematical thinking or reasoning.
Recently the newborn twin babies of actor Dennis Quaid nearly died because they were administered the wrong medicine. Nurses and pharmacists had been unable to distinguish between two similar mathematical labels.
Mathematics is important and widespread and it should be the right of all children to be given a high-quality mathematical preparation in school. Yet thousands leave school each year fearing or hating maths.
The reason for this is the way mathematics is usually taught in schools. Students spend hundreds of hours being shown a dry and narrow version nothing like the mathematics of the world and nothing like that used by mathematicians.
Mathematics exists in the petals of flowers, the rhythms of raindrops and the social networks that connect us; it is at the core of scientific and medical breakthroughs and it is a diverse and varied subject.
Ask mathematicians what mathematics is and they will generally tell you that it is the study and exploration of patterns. Ask school children what mathematics is and they will usually tell you that it is a vast collection of rules that have to be remembered.
Why are their descriptions so different? The reason is this: young people rarely experience real mathematics. Instead of posing questions, solving real and interesting problems, using and applying methods, investigating patterns and relationships, students spend their time watching a teacher demonstrate methods and then practising them. It is important for children to learn standard methods but this is just one small part of a very broad subject. The breadth of the subject is generally denied to children – at great cost. Ireland has taken an important step in introducing Project Maths and in streamlining the curriculum so that teachers have more time to teach mathematics in an authentic and interesting way.
But the reforms are provoking a backlash from some quarters, with suggestions that essential content has been eliminated and young people will not be mathematically prepared. Critics are overlooking an essential point: children were not well-prepared before when they were taught reams of content they did not understand and that often seemed to be completely meaningless.
We know a lot from research about student learning of mathematics. There is a vast and well-respected research base policymakers can draw from when making decisions about curriculum and teaching reforms.