The word ‘mathematics’ wields incredible power. For some students it provokes a deep sigh or indeed a groan. For others it is exciting; they cannot wait to get stuck into the subject because they enjoy the intellectual rigor involved.
Students who struggle with mathematics often become disheartened and conclude that they are just not compatible with it.
The number of students giving it up is increasing and this, in turn, is impacting the work force with shortages of employees with skills in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). It is a concerning development because those industries that produce the most wealth for nations, per year, are those that need people with proficiency in STEM.
Moreover, mathematics is unquestionably important for the development of critical thinking and quantitative reasoning; elements necessary in the future of automation and artificial intelligence.
The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking in 1987 fashioned a definition:
“Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
The cognitive advantages that the learning of mathematics has for the future engineer cannot be understated.
According to risk advisory firm Amstelveen’s David Gogh, mathematics should be a compulsory school subject and he feels the Australian curriculum has become outdated and needs to be overhauled.
In an opinion piece on ABC News’ website, David reports that in the 1980s statistics showed 1 in 3 Australians worked in agriculture, mining, or manufacturing. In 2018, the figure has dropped to 1 in 10 employed in the same industries.
Gogh believes that as the world becomes more ‘technology dependent’, and increasingly automation driven, Australia needs more STEM workers. In essence, as automation replaces certain jobs, the teaching of STEM subjects should become a focus. It will give everyone the greatest chance of becoming useful and gainfully employed in the Fourth Industrial Revolution which is now a reality.
In Australia, migrant workers with superior mathematical knowledge are being employed before those without an appropriate mathematical background. And many Australian students today are not pursuing mathematics in the final years of their schooling. In New South Wales (NSW), for instance, mathematics in Years 11 and 12 is not mandatory.
The statistics reported by ABC also indicate that there are fewer females taking mathematics than males. Because mathematics directly influences the jobs students get post school many Australians are worried.
Changing teaching methods
Problem solving skills and a solid understanding of mathematics and science should be formed before tertiary education is embarked upon, experts say. Without adequate levels of STEM education, coping in the tertiary sector is difficult; students will find themselves at a disadvantage.
David Gogh asserts that Australia needs an updated mathematics curriculum and approach to teaching. He believes the methodology used to impart the subject is the reason students are turned off. This is certainly not something peculiar to Australia – it is a global issue.
Dan Finkel is a doctor in algebraic geometry at the University of Washington, and Director of Operations for an organization known as ‘Math for Love’. He gave a TED Talk at an independently organized TED Talk event in Seattle in 2016. He promotes some simple principles that he believes could revolutionize mathematics teaching and help avoid ‘mathematical alienation’.
The principles, paraphrased from his TED Talk are as follows:
- Unnecessary repetition in mathematic should be removed;
- A teacher should start with a question and avoid giving the answers;
- Students need time to struggle and time to think, to work problems out; they need to persevere until the answers are found;
- A teacher must be a class companion, not the know-it-all answer giver;
- Students must be clear that being unable to answer an equation does not represent failure;
- They should collaborate with each other to figure out equations; students must engage in stimulating debate;
- Teachers must say ‘yes’ to students’ ideas: different ways of getting to the answer of an equation is ok; time to experiment with an equation is critical.
- Allow students to ‘play’: Einstein called ‘play’ the highest form of research; allowing students to play with mathematics will help them appreciate the wonder of figuring out how to solve equations.
“Five Principles of Extraordinary Math Teaching | Dan Finkel | TEDxRainier.” YouTube, 17 Feb. 2016, youtu.be/ytVneQUA5-c.
Gogh, David van. “Maths Should Be Compulsory at School: Our Future Jobs Depend on It.” ABC News, 5 Feb. 2018, www.abc.net.au/news/2018-02-06/stem-subjects-australian-education-system-jobs-atlassian/9373456.