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.

That research base tells us that more mathematics content is not better. In fact, it is detrimental to student understanding and meaning-making. Research also tells us that when teachers cut down on content and choose to teach mathematics with depth, giving students experiences of problem-solving and reasoning, students do better on standardised tests and take mathematics to higher levels.

I conducted an 11-year research study in which I followed students through two different mathematics teaching approaches in England, one similar to the traditional Irish approach and one more similar to the approach promoted by Project Maths. I found that students who worked in the Project Maths approach – covering less content but working in depth on problems, considering why methods worked and which methods were more appropriate – not only scored higher grades on the national GCSE examination but ended up in more professional jobs as adults.

In interviews, the adults who had studied lots of content by simply practising methods, told me that maths was irrelevant to their jobs and lives, and as soon as they left school they forgot the vast majority. By contrast those who worked on less content but in more depth understood mathematics, enjoyed their mathematical experiences and went on to use mathematics competently in their lives.

Public debates about maths teaching are important, but they would be greatly enhanced if they drew from the research base.

When critics write that Project Maths is failing because students don’t learn enough content, they miss something very important – that we are considering living, breathing young people who need to understand mathematics, to experience it with meaning and to enjoy mathematics, not empty containers that simply need to be filled up to the brim with content.

When critics do not consider the nature of the learning experience, they overlook the fact students who engage in problem-solving rather than procedure-repetition are working on a harder mathematics, one which requires them to think for themselves, to make connections between different mathematical areas and to reason.

Is Ireland dumbing down the curriculum in Project Maths? Far from it. Instead it is asking students to engage in authentic mathematics and introducing them to the richness and power of a subject critical not only to their lives but to the future of Ireland.

Jo Boaler is professor of mathematics education at Stanford University in California. She is the author of The Elephant in the Classroom: Helping Children Learn and Love Maths (Souvenir Press, May 2009)

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