Love maths and overcome the negative narrative

Keep-calm-and-love-MathI was at a meeting at my son’s high school last night where the careers counsellor was discussing that when the students enter year 11 they can choose the subjects they will study for the next two years; and how many of them breathe a sigh of relief when they find out that only English is compulsory so they don’t need to continue doing maths. This is not a good thing.

I understand that not every profession requires high-level maths. But let’s face it, we live in a complex society these days and having a good understanding of maths is crucial to navigating general living let alone being able to do any job well. There is really something wrong with our education system when we fail to ensure that our students emerge from high school with a good understanding of maths, science and English. I would, and do, argue that these are basic, foundation skills in our modern world.

There’s an interesting article that basically says that a lot of the problems with maths are due to a bunch of self-reinforcing myths. If you say often enough that “maths is boring” or “maths is not a girl thing” or “maths is only for the clever kids” then you create exactly that outcome. And that does a great disservice to everyone.  There does appear to be sense in focusing on altering students’ perception of maths: or in modern political-speak – changing the narrative. The tough part about that, though, probably lies less with the students and more with the adults who surround them.

You see the situation with maths literacy becomes more complex when you delve into the numbers. Australia doesn’t actually do too badly when measured against other OECD countries in terms of maths results for 15-year-old students. The results aren’t the best, but they’re not bad. The real issue is when you remove these people from an academic environment and look at how that translates into mathematically functioning adults. A disturbing proportion of the adult population perform really poorly in basic mathematics tasks (although to be fair the English results are just about as bad). Leaving to one side what that means in terms of choosing a good interest rate on a credit card or how much paint is required to cover a wall, it means those people are hardly likely to be giving their kids positive reinforcement about maths.

One answer to this issue could be that our schools are not teaching the things that remain useful in later life, and to some degree we’ve all experienced that. But the more likely issue comes back to the message, the narrative, the myths. Too many people view education as a necessary evil; they breathe a sigh of relief when they finish school and can put maths behind them. That’s a failure not of the curriculum, or individual schools, but of a society that does not adequately value learning for its own sake.

Maths, science and English all ought to be compulsory subjects to the end of school. But more than that, in the best of all possible worlds, making them compulsory would not be necessary. We ought to be turning out kids who are alive to how important they are and who want to learn more. In the best of all possible worlds.

Regular readers may think this all rings a bell. I’m re-publishing this article from a few months ago, because there’s been some recent discussion on the topic on the internet in light of the HSC exams being sat at the moment. I was going to write more, but still like what I wrote before. In a related way, this excellent article – Are Women Underselling Themselves at Maths – covers similar ground. While it focuses on the issue of women and maths, I’d argue that some of the underlying ideas could be applied just as effectively to the maths-deniers amongst the men in our society: if you expect to do badly, that’s what you’re going to do – narratives have power.

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