Decline in maths and literacy


Madam, – The latest OECD results will not be a surprise to people teaching maths to science and engineering students in colleges and universities here (“Irish students drop in rankings for literacy and maths”, Home News, December 8th). In the school of physics in Trinity we have noticed a progressive decline in mathematical ability over the past 10 years. This does not reflect a lower standard of general intelligence in our students, but a lack of training in mathematical reasoning.

While learning purely by rote is regrettable in any subject, in maths it is disastrous. Learning by heart recipes for solving the questions on the Leaving Maths papers is not the same as learning mathematics. The essence of maths is logical reasoning, and an ability to reason is what is needed for the knowledge economy.

Learning maths by rote is of no use to anyone – except as a means of getting good marks in state examinations! Even those students with a natural aptitude for maths are badly served by the current system because they are not encouraged or helped in developing their reasoning skills.

While it is essential for teachers to be given a good training in maths teaching, they are not entirely to blame for the present state of affairs.

The nature of the Junior and Leaving Cert examinations makes it possible to achieve excellent marks without understanding. The state maths exams need to test reasoning ability if the situation is to change. It is to be hoped that the new Project Maths course will bring about a change in both the teaching and examining of maths in secondary schools. – Yours, etc,


School of Physics,

Trinity College Dublin.