Upping the ante in maths.

It’s August, so we have had the school leaving exam results and as is typical, there has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth about maths. Put simply, we’re not good enough at it.

Collectively, I mean. There are some individuals doing nicely. Anyway, one of the options being suggested to improve interest in maths is bribery, I mean, bonus points for mathematics.

Bonus points for mathematics is not new. When I did my leaving certificate oooooh, exactly 20 years ago now, they existed. Since then, they don’t exist, the maths syllabus has been streamlined at least once, if not twice and foundation maths was invented. And all told, things do not seem to be getting better.

So the solution is Project maths;

Mrs Coughlan said the new Project Maths – a pilot scheme in 24 schools – would be rolled out across the country.

“I believe from the very tentative results that we have seen thus far that it is the most appropriate way in which we can encourage more young people to take higher level mathematics,” she said.

Helpful. Mrs Coughlan, for the benefit of posterity is the Education Minister of the time. 24 schools are the basis on which we will make this decision. I’m not certain that’s a good idea.

The problem – which is not unique to higher level mathematics – is that the attitude to education has changed. We don’t sell it correctly to teenagers, and they expect to be sold things. I do not know why – I don’t have children, so much of what I believe is pure and idle speculation. We do have a number of youngsters who do not necessarily understand the effort/reward set up of exams. And that the reward may not necessarily be just passing the exams, but more interesting things in the future.

When I was at school, I was taught maths by a man who took the occasional week off the syllabus to teach us how it was useful for economics and computer programming, neither of which were taught in my school. Some people worked hard in his class because they were scared of him. Others worked hard because in some way, he was inspirational. Maths was a tool for other things apart from being an end in itself.

Much of the educational curriculum is often written off with “I’ll never need to “… prove another theorem in my life. We have a generation of people who dismiss aspects of the education system as being a waste of time, without recognising how those aspects might fit into other things they want to do. For example, I do honestly believe we should be teaching kids to do some sort of programming at second level anyway, but there isn’t a hope in hell any of them will be able to do that without some reasonable grounding in maths, for example.

There’s too much emphasis – I think – on immediate usefulness of various aspects of parts of the curriculum – eg, computer courses tend to consist of the ECDL which is handy enough but it’s hardly taxing to learn how to use a wordprocessor if you can read – but apart from training an army of teenage mutant ninja hackers, a lot of people can’t see the point in kids learning to write their own programs, because, sure they can buy them.

Education is about a way of thinking. I think we’ve lost sight of that. And until we learn to show teenagers how things that they’ve convinced themselves are a waste of time (eg maths) are not a waste of time (eg don’t you want to write computer games), we probably won’t be able to up the ante in maths in the short term.

Part of this means we need to look at how we teach these things. Not necessarily curriculum content. Only that – in all honesty – there are probably a lot of people teaching mathematics who should perhaps not be teaching mathematics.

For the long term, I think we need to look at the education cycle in Ireland anyway. I think the primary/secondary split and move to specialisation in the timetable is too late. However, that is an argument for another day. In the meantime, a look at Professor Stewart’s various maths curiosities reveals that however belatedly, people are interested in maths.

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