Submission by the Mathematical Association of South Australia

The first comment that must be made is that it is disappointing that this sub-committee, set up to consider mathematics and statistics teaching in various institutions including schools, does not include more than one school teacher! Was this teacher expected to seek opinions from others? It is rather unfortunate that assumptions about what is happening in schools will be made unless the opinions of those actually involved in teaching mathematics and statistics in schools are actively sought and considered in this program. This is not likely to happen within the given time-frame.

  1. Strengthening the supply and support of teachers of mathematics and statistics

    While the supply of fully qualified mathematics teachers is an issue, the overall quality of mathematics teaching in schools – at all levels – is the most crucial factor. While Primary teachers are generally all teachers of mathematics, it is important that there be significant pre-requisite mathematics standards required for entry to pre-service teaching courses, together with significant studies in both content and pedagogy during training.

    1. Primary pre-service:
      Pre-service primary students need to have had positive experiences and a good attitude to the subject, if they are to engender high levels of enthusiasm for mathematics. Hence it is important that as well as developing effective pedagogies, any anxieties and difficulties with the subject should be addressed during their courses. Since virtually all primary teachers teach mathematics, a significant emphasis needs to be put on strengthening their mathematical knowledge and fostering positive attitudes and confidence in mathematics. These should be core studies and a considerable component of the course. Courses need to be compulsory and designed to prepare primary pre-service students as confident and competent teachers of mathematics and numeracy who are classroom-ready.
    2. Mathematics in primary schools:
      There are many, many primary school teachers who are excellent practitioners but who are aware that they need to improve their mathematical knowledge and understanding in order to do the best by their students. Even so, some of these teachers exhibit very high levels of anxiety, even avoidance, when mathematics is involved. A significant number of primary mathematics teachers need ongoing and regular support and encouragement. Providing professional development that centres on improving student learning but also models good mathematics teaching with rich learning tasks enables teachers to improve their confidence for both doing and teaching mathematics. Changing attitudes and developing the capacity of teachers requires long-term associations with passionate educators and mathematicians. Some consideration could be given to appointing specialist mathematics teachers in primary schools similar to the Numeracy coach initiative.
    3. Teachers in secondary school junior classes:
      There is evidence to suggest that at least one third of teachers of mathematics classes are “out-of-field”. This does not necessarily mean that they are not good mathematics teachers but that mathematics is not their major interest. It is important to provide support to these teachers through experienced colleagues, senior teachers, strong faculties with leaders who are given time to share their expertise and offer genuine classroom support. Strong learning communities and professional associations can offer the daily and long-term that teachers in remote and isolated are entitled to.
    4. Senior secondary mathematics classes:
      A large number of the teachers with the knowledge and experience to teach senior classes are nearing retirement. There are teachers willing and often keen to teach senior mathematics, but many of these, usually less-experienced, teachers need both knowledge and pedagogy, together with pedagogical content knowledge, to assist them to teach at this level. As many of our experienced teachers reach retirement, plans need to be in place to enable them to share their expertise and be given the time to mentor and tandom-teach with aspiring teachers.

     
    We need an audit to be conducted of what we have, and what we need, in both the long and short term, to provide the hard evidence on which comprehensive and immediate action can be taken to improve both supply and quality of mathematics teachers across all school years. This needs to occur for both pre-service and currently practising teachers. Students in our schools deserve quality teaching at all levels, to encourage them to continue their studies in mathematics. Action must be taken now!

  2. Closing achievement gaps in mathematics and statistics

    Numeracy proficiency and mathematical thinking are essential abilities for participating fully in our modern and technically-rich lives. However, in our state, probably across the country, there seems to be a general acceptance that ‘maths is difficult’ and ‘some people just can’t do maths’ and that after passing the compulsory Stage 1 Numeracy unit one need not worry about mathematics again. If, however, there is an inherent belief that mathematics is important for all of us and it is beneficial and rewarding for students to tackle problems that they find challenging but accessible at all stages of their learning, then the biggest cause of achievement gaps will be overcome.

    Mathematical development begins in the earliest years of childhood and so there should be mathematical experts and enthusiasts as educators at all levels of education. A child who enjoys mathematics should be encouraged and fostered to the same extent as a child who is interested in music, sport, languages etc. and well before they reach senior secondary school.

    Student enquiry-based learning and pedagogies that develop the four Proficiencies of the Australian Curriculum, Fluency, Understanding, Problem-solving and Reasoning, promise to diminish achievement gaps in mathematics by differentiating learning for students. Content-driven instruction can inhibit conceptual understanding and foster misconceptions. Time-poor teachers with limited instruction time feel compelled to cover content as prescribed in curriculum documents. Australian Curriculum inservice for teachers should focus on the processes of working mathematically rather than required mathematical content. While primary DECD schools have compulsory 300 minute instruction time in mathematics, this should be monitored and mandatory instruction should be extended to secondary schools.
  3. Increasing the numbers of students studying advanced mathematics and statistics

    Interest in a subject can be stimulated by extra curricula experiences in schools. Students can be inspired by participating in competitions, activities, excursions and challenges, working with mathematicians, solving problems and feeling part of a community of mathematical enthusiasts. Teachers, schools, universities and industries should be encouraged and funded to provide a range of such opportunities.

    Students are more likely to choose to study advanced mathematics if:

    • they have had positive experiences in studying and doing mathematics
    • their schools have high quality, passionate teachers and strong mathematics faculties
    • mathematics is a high profile subject with parents, peers and career counsellors
    • they know old scholars or siblings who have studied mathematics
    • mathematics is a stated pre-requisite of a future pathway
    • there are bonus points and scaling benefits in choosing mathematics
    • they are confident that they will be successful

     
    Addressing issues relating to teacher supply and standards, timetabling, staffing and resourcing and an improved profile of mathematics in schools is the best way to increase the study of advanced mathematics by making changes at the point where decisions are made.

    I totally agree with the sentiments expressed in “School mathematics and success at university: let’s find out the truth and make it known” Submitted on March 28, 2013 by leanne.rylands

  4. There is a significant interest in promoting STEM subjects at bureaucratic and political levels in response to concerns for our technical skill shortages. There is increasing concern about the failing levels of achievement by SA students in all standardised tests in mathematics and numeracy. Funding has produced state-wide strategies and initiatives that may raise societal awareness of these worrying trends. At the same time, our members are reporting practices in their schools that are contrary to improving increased study in mathematics and the mathematical development of our students. Such concerns include:

    • Decreasing time spent on mathematics instruction in secondary schools (as little as 185 minutes /week). Busy school calendars repeatedly interrupt the continuity of learning and seriously diminish time spent doing mathematics.
    • Career counsellors, parents and peers often encourage students to maximise ATAR scores by choosing subjects considered to be easier than mathematics.
    • Schools do not all have positions of responsibility for mathematics faculty leaders.

     
    Finally, groups set up to consider mathematics and statistics teaching in various institutions including schools, should always include significant representation of school teachers. Often assumptions about what is happening in schools will be made unless the opinions of those actually involved in teaching mathematics and statistics in schools are actively sought and considered in this program. Any plan promising positive outcomes in this venture must reflect an understanding of the nature of schools and the prime motivators for teachers.

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