That OECD Maths Graph and Harry Potter

The graph below was recently produced by the OECD. (Full maths teaching report is here.) It positions countries on a coordinate system in which the x-axis represents the extent to which maths teaching is ‘teacher-led’ and the y-axis represents the extent to which students rely  on memory in learning maths. This is all based on feedback from students and it is worth noting that this analysis largely predated the introduction of Project Maths in Ireland.

Ireland was singled out for its reliance on teacher-directed instruction and memorization as a learning tactic. Jo Boaler (@joboaler), a maths education guru from Stanford, tweeted:”Wow, the UK and Ireland top the world in maths memorization. Teachers and students deserve better.”


The first thing to be said is that the y-axis does not in any way represent a pedagogical philosophy, at least not in Ireland. What it actually represents is the extent to which students in Ireland used memorization as a study tactic in advance of the Leaving Cert.

The second, more important, point is that there is no evidence that a country’s coordinate on the above graph correlates with any metric of mathematics achievement. For example, in Pisa 2012, Switzerland was ranked 9 while the Netherlands was ranked 10 – two very different educational philosophies (it would appear) yet very similar outcomes. Likewise, Ireland was ranked at 20 while Slovenia was at 21. France was at 25 while NZ was at 23. Poland and Belgium are at 14 and 15. Germany and Spain look like they should have similar outcomes but, no, Germany was at 16 while Spain was at 32.

Of course, this is all a bit silly because so many factors, cultural and otherwise, are at play when it comes to educational achievement.

In other words, this graph is like that mirror in the Harry Potter movie – it tells you precisely what you want it to tell you. Perfect for the educational ideologue.


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 That OECD Maths Graph and Harry Potter

  1. Pingback: How should we teach maths? | educationandstuff

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