The HSC maths and science changes need to be backed with more teachers

The HSC is getting a long-over-due overhaul with a focus on more depth rather than breadth. This sounds like a good thing, and mostly it is – but we need more.

The Herald reports that the new syllabuses will be “‘unashamedly focused on mastery’ and there will be ‘less breadth and more depth’ to better meet what students will need to learn for the future”.  There will be more statistical analysis in the standard maths course, and students will study the algorithms behind Google searches as well as focusing on key financial concepts such as compounding interest. The new science syllabus will see a stronger focus on maths in Physics and Chemistry.

As this is very aligned with what I’ve been arguing for ages  now, I can only applaud – but I do have a question: Whose going to teach this?

Now, this is not another teacher-bashing, let’s blame the teachers for the PISA results, piece. I don’t do those. It’s a serious question when we talk about putting more maths into Physics, Chemistry and, well, Maths. If we’re to teach more maths, we need teachers with good maths and we’ve now spent a couple of decades not producing those in quantity.

Our PISA results put our high school graduates 18-months behind Asian students in science and two years behind in Maths. That’s amongst the students choosing to do those subjects,  and we know that the numbers of students doing advanced maths and science has been declining apace. Then once people with those skills graduate they have to be pretty committed to take a teaching job above one with shorter hours and better pay with Google or a bank.

So where do we find the teachers for maths-enriched versions of Maths, Physics, and Chemistry? As far as I can see, even as things stand, the pipe-line of incoming teachers in those subjects runs somewhere between parched and dry.

Updating the syllabus is crucial and long-overdue, but like most of our education initiatives it is not part of a holistic plan and is certainly not being backed by the money required to make changes. And, yes, this is something I keep saying: We need a plan, not a band-aid. The new syllabus sounds good, and may be even better once the advanced Maths is sorted out; but, given that it kicks-in in next year, there needs to be an immediate plan to get enough teachers into a position to teach it.

There’s an underlying irony in the chair of the NSW Education Standards Authority, Tom Alegounarias, saying the new HSC will be in demand around the world with digital versions making it possible for the HSC courses to be sold internationally. Presumably into countries where their existing systems are producing lots of strong maths and science graduates.

In any right-thinking World the introduction of a new HSC syllabus would be accompanied by serious funding for up-skilling our existing teachers and for finding new ones to meet what should be an expanding demand for people with deep maths and science skills willing to teach. Or, perhaps, recognise the problem and look at different ways of teaching the subjects like flipping the classroom. Just up-grading the syllabus in maths and science seems unlikely to change much without a plan, some money, and some lateral thinking to ensure there are the teaching resources available to make a difference.

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