Project Maths: Another success story….not really

Great News on the Project Maths front it would seem. Progress is good by all accounts! According to the Examiner, a recent evaluation done by some UK quango or other has concluded that (my comments in bold):

1. “Students at Junior and Leaving Certificate level appear to be performing well and are broadly confident in their abilities in many aspects, particularly statistics and probability”

Meaningless. A bit like when my students write a laboratory report and conclude that ‘the experiment worked well’.

2. “Students in all schools were highly positive about the Maths teaching”

Again, meaningless. Being positive about Maths and actually learning important stuff is not the same thing.

3. “High numbers of students in pilot schools regularly take part in activities associated with more traditional approaches to Maths teaching”

Not sure what this even means but it sounds like there is plenty of plain, ordinary teaching going on.

4. “Students find tasks that require higher order skills such as reasoning and transferring knowledge to new contexts harder than more mechanically demanding tasks”.

Obvious. I don’t need this to be ‘found out’ by a group of experts.

5. “Students struggle in comparison with those in other countries in areas related to algebra and calculus; some higher-level Leaving Certificate students struggle with items relating to the functions (calculus to you and me but its’ a secret!) part of the course”.

This is disastrous but not surprising given the syllabus and the whole philosophy of the Project Maths initiative. It looks like students will continue to be totally unprepared for Maths at third level.

 6. Furthermore, teachers have indicated there have been “positive changes in a number of aspects of students’ learning, including their understanding of statistics and probability, geometry and trigonometry, their ability to solve real-life problems, and to work collaboratively,”

The new syllabus is dominated by these topics so no surprise there.

7. Teachers in pilot schools use computers and technology far more than those in other schools, and their classes do group work and collaboration more often.

So what? Technology in education can be either a benefit or a gimmick. And anyway, is mathematics really a collaborative subject?

It looks to me like this is just more confirmation that Project Maths is ultimately an exercise in manipulating the numbers. ‘Success’ will be measured by uptake rates, vague measures of student ‘engagement’ and overall pass rates.

The real story here is that Mathematics is being replaced by some sort of Mathematical Modelling/Problem Solving yoke. True Maths, which involves a lot of ‘grunt’ work, seems to be disappearing from the Leaving Cert.

Why don’t we just stop the pretence? Maths is hard work, many people just don’t like it and it will never be as popular as something like English or Biology or French. By all means retain Project Maths, whatever it is, to keep the politicians and business people happy. The latter seem to have some notion that maths is important but I’ve never heard any of them state explicitly what level of maths their workforce needs to have – just vague statements about maths and the knowledge economy. Whatever the need, it can’t do any harm to have lots of people trained to Project Maths standard.

But, let’s retain a decent standard, relevant Maths course for those who intend to study mathematical subjects, like physics and engineering, at third level.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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