I was going to write about something else entirely today but reading this article on the maths deficit via Ninth Level Ireland got me thinking about the whole maths thing again. Instead of ranting about the usual, predictable suggestions made in that article, I will try to be positive and make a proposal.
First, let me set the scene.
As I said in my last blog, Mathematics is an unforgiving subject. If you don’t understand it at one level, you cannot move onto the next. I gave the example of needing to be proficient at basic algebra before one can possibly do calculus.
Here’s what I think happens. Youngsters do not grasp, or are not effectively taught, very basic mathematical concepts and fall behind very early on in their education. This probably happens in primary school. As new concepts – such as long division – are introduced, they struggle even more. Nobody likes any activity, whether it is sport or academics, if they struggle at it. Think of some sport you’re crap at and how much you hate playing it. Be good at something and you will probably like it. Struggling leads to dislike and the whole process becomes self perpetuating. Eventually we have adults who almost proudly claim that they are ‘useless at maths’.
The solution, in my view, requires intervention in the very early years and the role of the primary teacher is critical. I believe that we need specialist mathematics teachers who will not only be qualified in mathematics but also in the teaching of mathematics. There has been a lot of discussion about the mathematics qualifications of teachers, but very little on the need for specialist training in actually teaching the subject.
If one looks at the Open University website, for example, you will find modules devoted entirely to the teaching of mathematical concepts, whether they be geometrical, algebraic or statistical. Are our primary teachers studying maths education to this extent and more? Remember, also, that newly qualified primary teachers are products of the current education system and, statistically, one can expect many, if not most, of them to have an aversion to mathematics.
Now, the solution.
I think we need specialist mathematics teachers in all of our primary schools. This seems glaringly obvious to me. Just because primary maths is ‘easy’ doesn’t mean that it’s easy to teach. In fact, the opposite is probably the case. For me, the ideal person for this role is a mathematician/engineer/physicist who has received specialist training in the teaching of mathematics. Not a generalist, who probably doesn’t even like maths and who has to teach maths alongside Art, Religion, Irish, History etc.
Of course, this means that the solution to the maths deficit is not going to come any time soon. But, as Roy Keane says: “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail”.