Dear Minister – 10 things for you to think about regarding maths

Dear Minister

You are clearly very happy with the surge in numbers taking honours maths. You claim that this is good news because it is crucial for the ‘knowledge economy’ that we have high numbers taking higher level maths, now transformed into Project Maths of course.

Here are some assorted  ideas and comments for you to consider:

  1. Doing higher level Project Maths (or even the ‘old’ honours maths) is not the same as becoming mathematically adept. Anyone who teaches at Third Level knows this. I come across mathematical heresies all the time, even from those who have good grades in honours maths. In my experience, the maths problems at third level are getting progressively worse and I have the exam scripts to show you. Indeed one of my classes, the one that went through the transition phase of Project Maths, seems to have particular problems with basic algebra even though their CAO points are very high.
  2. Giving extra Leaving Cert points to maths is probably the worst possible incentive you can give people if you want them to learn mathematics properly. Students will approach the subject in a purely utilitarian, points-grabbing, way. They will not learn well. Most of these students will bag the points and study at third level what they were going to study anyway, losing their maths in the process.
  3. Most practicing engineers and scientists use a relatively low level of mathematics and it would probably be far more useful if young people left school fluent in the use of Excel.
  4. Remember that there is a significant proportion (albeit relatively small) of the population who genuinely like mathematics and are good at it. (Policy-makers seem to find this inconceivable.) These people deserve a challenging ‘pure’ maths syllabus, one that serves their needs just as the needs of those who study history or English literature or Latin or economics are served. Why is maths singled out for the purely utilitarian approach?
  5. Here’s a quote from a well-known Maths teacher after Paper One of the Project Maths papers, 2013: “All the questions in section A were fully anticipated and wouldn’t have posed any difficulty for students who were prepared. The questions in section B were similar to those posed in the sample paper provided during the year; this would have taken the sting out of them for students. Section C, meanwhile, was much easier than previously, with no challenging integration whatsoever.” Predictability is rearing its ugly head again, defeating the whole purpose of the ‘project’ approach. You need to keep an eye on this phenomenon.
  6. In 2012, only 36% of graduates in Science and Mathematics gained employment directly after their undergraduate degree (HEA figures). This does not seem consistent with a knowledge economy crying out for scientifically literate graduates.
  7. In 2012, only 44% of graduates in Engineering gained employment directly after their undergraduate degree. See my previous point.
  8. Why have you done nothing with the Applied Maths syllabus? If any course deserved the ‘project’ approach it was this? If you wanted ‘relevant’ maths, why did you not focus on this subject and leave ‘pure’ maths alone, albeit with a revised and more coherent syllabus.
  9. Talk to teachers and lecturers – not educational theorists. Talk to students, both at second and third levels. You might find that students are a lot wiser than you think. Really. Spend a day with them and get their insights. I guarantee you will learn a lot more than you would by talking to aging Professors, public servants and educational ‘experts’.
  10. Talk to young graduates who are working in the ‘knowledge economy’.  Ask them what their jobs are like, what skills they use and especially ask them about the level of maths that they use. Don’t just talk to CEOs.




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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One Response to Dear Minister – 10 things for you to think about regarding maths

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Dear Minister – 10 things for you to think about regarding maths

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