Why are the Irish so bad at maths – and how can we solve the conundrum?
A cultural bias against maths, and a failure to train teachers properly, add up to a tricky problem
Photograph: Helder Almeida/Getty
Why are the Irish so bad at maths? The Department of Education inspectorate reported this week that a quarter of postprimary maths teachers are failing to deliver in the classroom. Our pupils are slipping down the numeracy ranks. And we’re unable to meet the needs of the growing information and computer technology sector. What’s our problem?
The biologist Richard Dawkins says people take pride in being useless with numbers. “Nobody boasts of ignorance of literature, but it is socially acceptable to boast ignorance of science and proudly claim incompetence in mathematics,” he says.
The Irish take more pride than most, fancying ourselves as writers, poets and artists. Who needs maths when you’ve got Seamus Heaney and James Joyce?
There might be an even more profound explanation for our odd relationship with numbers: early Christian thinkers cautioned against maths. “The danger already exists that mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of Hell,” said St Augustine.
A more likely explanation is that our parents didn’t like maths, and their parents didn’t like maths, and so generation after generation keeps absolving the next. Seán Delaney of the Marino Institute of Education says that many Irish adults have a primal fear of maths that they communicate, consciously or unconsciously, to their children.
“We learn maths in school, but many of our attitudes to mathematics and learning the subject are picked up at home, through media, from our friends and just from living in this country,” says Delaney, an expert in mathematics education. “These are attitudes like ‘maths is hard’ or ‘only some lucky people are naturally good at maths’ or ‘you’ll never use algebra after the Leaving’. Teachers grow up in the same culture and pick up similar attitudes.”
Teachers try to meet the expectations of society, he says. “Like everyone else, many teachers learned mathematics by learning off facts and memorising them. Although memorisation is an important part of learning maths, it is equally important to be able to think and communicate mathematically in order to solve problems.
“Irish maths textbooks don’t hold up well when compared with textbooks in other countries, at primary level at least. There is no system where textbooks have to be approved in order to be used in schools. Given the ubiquity of textbook use among teachers, this is an area where regulation could certainly help.”
Another problem here is that for a long time teacher-training colleges didn’t grasp what makes a good maths teacher, says Delaney. “Teacher educators thought that the mathematical knowledge needed to teach maths was straightforward. Like many others, they thought that it was enough to simply know more mathematics than the children. As a result student teachers were not required to study maths after their Leaving Cert. We know much more now about how mathematically demanding teaching is, and it is now a Teaching Council requirement that all primary teachers study mathematics. But it will take time for those teachers to have an impact on the system, and it is very difficult for a practising teacher to find a course to develop their own mathematical knowledge for teaching.”
Luke Drury of the school of cosmic physics at Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies says we suffer from a cultural bias against mathematics. “It’s true that the Irish don’t perceive themselves as a mathematical people, even though we have produced some very important mathematicians, such as William Rowan Hamilton, George Stokes and James McCullagh,” he says. “Despite this we do seem to suffer from a cultural bias; we see ourselves as writers and poets.”
And there’s a more immediate problem, says Drury, who is also president of the Royal Irish Academy. “Maths is taught by people who have not been exposed to a proper maths education. There is a lack of professionalism in maths teaching.”
The maths we teach is not engaging, says Drury. “We have excessive rote learning. The new Leaving Cert maths syllabus – Project Maths – goes some way towards addressing this, but it has been controversial.”
Sean Rowland founded Hibernia College, a private teacher-training institution that produces hundreds of graduates each year. He believes radical measures might be needed to improve maths teaching – measures that might not be achievable at training colleges. “Maths is incredibly important; future employment is based on our knowledge of maths. What if we recruited the best engineers and mathematicians from other countries to teach in Irish schools for three to five years to get the standards up? Or we could employ maths graduates for a period in our schools after they finish college.”
Paul Lockhart, a New York mathematician and school teacher, believes we don’t push maths or stretch the curriculum because we don’t trust children to grasp it, hence our reliance on formulae. Writing in A Mathematician’s Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form, Lockhart asks: “Why don’t we want our children to learn to do mathematics? Is it that we don’t trust them, that we think it’s too hard? We seem to feel that they are capable of making arguments and coming to their own conclusions about Napoleon. Why not about triangles?”