Maths numbers don’t add up

31 Aug 2006

This year, just 11,000 Leaving Cert students took honours mathematics, a subject required by most engineering and IT degree courses at third level. Ireland needs to produce 14,000 engineering and 6,900 IT graduates a year if it is to become one of the top five global economies by 2020, according to Engineers Ireland. As our friends in the US like to say: do the math.

Ireland is facing a huge shortfall in candidates for jobs in science, engineering and technology, areas essential if we are to realise the widely trumpeted ambition of becoming a high value-added knowledge economy.

Less than half the numbers doing honours maths at Junior Cert level go on to take it at Leaving Cert. What’s more, universities and industry have lamented the poor standards of those who do progress to engineering and technology courses at third level.
The burning question seems obvious: isn’t it time to change the way honours maths is taught?

The resounding answer from industry and unions is yes. Come September, however, students will be getting more of the same. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, which has been charged with the task of reviewing the teaching of maths, won’t report back to the Department of Education and Science with recommendations until spring 2007.

Eileen Scanlon, convenor of maths for the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI), says that even changing the curriculum is not enough.

“There is nowhere outside of the school system where children are learning mathematics,” she points out. She contrasts this with other subjects where students can develop their abilities in a fun and informal manner: Irish students go to the Gaeltacht, French students to French camps, biology students on field trips and history students to museums.

Students need to be made aware that maths exists outside the classroom. This is something that society has to address, believes Scanlon, and she calls into question the prevailing attitudes that work against this outcome.

“There’s an ‘instant coffee’ attitude to learning today,” she says, a trend she has noticed in her experience as a teacher spanning four decades. “Anything that’s difficult, students just turn away from it.”

Jim Browne, vice-president of Engineers Ireland, puts this in an international context: “It’s a general case that as society gets wealthier people move away from engineering and science-type of positions. I think Ireland needs to be careful that we don’t find ourselves in a position where we don’t have a scientifically literate workforce.”

Scanlon has a theory on why people are turning their backs on difficult subjects, and it has to do with a subconscious change in attitude towards learning that has occurred over the past 20 years. “We’re into the third generation of second-level-educated people in Ireland. Back in the Sixties and up to the Eighties, the parents of most of the students we taught did not have second-level education. They were unable to give answers to their children. The students at that time had to go and find answers themselves with their teachers. It’s that generation of students who gave rise to the Celtic Tiger.”

Today, parents are quick to give children answers to everything, a process which, Scanlon believes, is counter-productive to learning. The great answering machine sitting in the corner of most homes today, the internet, only exacerbates this situation.
She describes the focus on learning today as merely the acquisition or recall of information rather than the development of thinking abilities. “The answer has become more important than the question,” she laments. “Most students have the answers to questions within themselves and the job of teachers and parents is to bring that out, not to give their answers to them.”

The rush to help students has backfired, she suggests, pointing out that the mushrooming of grind schools and study skills courses, while valuable if approached correctly, can actually be detrimental to learning. “From what I have seen, what they [study skills courses] do is help students mainly develop their memory. In fact, this can be to the detriment of following up on something that’s difficult.”

These are big issues, but what can turn students on to honours maths and its even more neglected peers, chemistry and physics? Changing the tune about how students need maths to become engineers, scientists or technologists could be a start.

“Maths should not be seen as just for students taking a particular career path,” says Kathryn Raleigh, director of ICT Ireland. “There was work done a few years ago that showed that students who took honours maths also did better in the degree they did in college, no matter what degree it was: arts, science, business or whatever. A good grounding in maths, due to the way it helps with logic and reasoning, is good for everything.”

“I wouldn’t be persuading people to do honours maths because they want to do engineering or whatever; I would encourage them to do it because they need it for life,” agrees Scanlon. “Maths is not a volume of information; it’s a way of thinking. Mathematical thinking is innate in practically all human beings. Doing honours maths develops that ability which you apply to every single aspect of your life.”

Scanlon’s own school in Galway has an excellent track record in turning out honours maths students, and she believes this approach has made the difference, not carping on about job prospects in IT or engineering.

Making maths seem relevant to life for students first of all means making it seem relevant to life for teachers, however.
“It would be useful if second-level teachers in science and maths were given the opportunity to go into industry, as kind of sabbaticals, so they would see these things in practice,” says Browne. “They would see that maths is actually useful; it’s not just abstract. They’d see it used in quality assurance and analysis.

“If teachers could get that type of refreshment knowledge every five to 10 years, even through a kind of summer placement in a business, when they go back into the classroom they can talk about their subject with a bit of excitement.”

Another way to promote the importance of mathematics in everyday life is through extracurricular camps, activities and talks.
“The Government should set up special summer schools, which they have in Russia, New Zealand and America. If they can do it for Irish, why can’t they do it for maths? You could have schools for lateral thinking, you could have fun maths,” suggests Scanlon.

While ICT Ireland and Engineers Ireland do send people out to schools for talks, more needs to be done to excite the imagination of students, says Scanlon. She recalls a trip to a maths day put on by the Rowan Hamilton Institute which really grabbed the attention of her students. “They were shown maths in action, maths in art, whereas I as a teacher wouldn’t have access to that knowledge and wouldn’t be able to do it.”

“If you’re problem solving, look at specific engineering issues,” Raleigh advises teachers as a way to bring the subject to life. “Look at the technology we’re using [in industry].”

Margie McCarthy, manager of STEPS to Engineering with Engineers Ireland, says: “If you learn maths through understanding the concepts behind it then it would actually be easier to get an A in it.”

She points to the current preponderance of rote learning at second level, where students are rehashing old exam papers to get ahead in the points race, as debilitating to understanding. “When they realise in third level the application of maths it becomes much more interesting,” she says.

Another way to maximise the teaching of maths is through good timetabling, which can only be facilitated by close communication between boards of management and teachers. Scanlon states that parents must realise their role in this and not leave it up to the schools and the department. Parents should pipe up when they see a double maths class scheduled for last thing on a Friday afternoon, for example.

Timetabling does not necessarily mean allocating extra hours to maths; all that’s required is careful time management. Scanlon advocates banding, where all maths classes for a particular year would be on at the same time. This allows for lateral movement between classes and team teaching.

“You cannot adequately teach all levels of maths in the one class, especially when it comes to second year,” she says. “At 14-15 years, their abstract thinking and spatial ability is developing. If they bear with it at that time they’ll go on to Leaving Cert.”
McCarthy also disregards the need for more hours. “I don’t think it’s necessary if the approach to the curriculum was changed.”
Investment, Browne postulates, is central to bringing these subjects to life. “You have to realise it’s expensive to teach these subjects properly. It’s not just a matter of having a teacher with a piece of chalk and a blackboard.”

But it’s not just an issue of making sure enough people are qualified to take up positions in the technology sector, according to Browne. The general lethargy of the public regarding all things scientific is a worry. He describes the present scenario where many decision makers and opinion formers on important issues such as waste management and nuclear power have little basic appreciation of science as “ludicrous”.

“Because people have no sense of chemistry, physics or mathematics, they’re easily swayed by demagogues, by emotional arguments,” he argues.

“Scientific literacy is important. Even those people who don’t want to do science should be encouraged to do some kind of scientific study. The education system should make sure that everybody has a flavour of these things but also makes sure that an appropriate number go on to do science, engineering and mathematics in depth.”

The answers to these questions are already there, says industry; they just need to be acted upon. “I don’t think there’s too much more analysis required. What’s required now is action,” says Browne.

“I’m always loath to set up another body just for the sake of it,” says Raleigh. “You look at what’s out there and build on that. I’d be optimistic if we could get the stakeholders around a table very quickly.”

Are bonus points the answer?

IBEC, ICT Ireland, Engineers Ireland and the Royal Irish Academy have all called for bonus points for honours maths in the Leaving Cert in the past year. But, in light of the fact that most engineering and technology degree courses already require honours maths, what advantage does this offer honours maths students?

Kathryn Raleigh, director of ICT Ireland, believes it will help. “It will certainly help those students who are on the borderline,” she says. Students enticed to stick at honours maths after the Junior Cert by the bonus points will leave the option of a third-level technology degree course open to them for longer, she argues.

This incentive will only work if points are available regardless of what course a student is aiming for, however. The Minister for Education and Science, Mary Hanafin TD, favours a system where extra points are awarded only if students opt for certain courses.

Jim Browne, vice-president of Engineers Ireland, doesn’t see the point of this approach. “If all the candidates all get bonus points then nobody might as well get them. They’re all going for the same subject anyway.

“I think the issue is to make maths attractive by making engineering attractive and I don’t think that is done by simply adding bonus points.”

He offers another reason why it’s not desirable. “Once you make the exception for one subject you open up a can of worms. History, for example, and some modern languages are in very bad shape; you could argue that in the modern globalised world languages are very important.”

It’s not all about the technology sector either. Eileen Scanlon, convenor of maths for ASTI, believes awarding double points for national school teaching would result in more mathematically literate people ending up in that area, which would have a domino effect in raising standards. “As long as children encounter even one good maths teacher on their journey through primary school at the right time, it’ll develop that appreciation in them.”

What’s the Government doing?

Reform of the maths curriculum is on the agenda but will not be acted on until the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment’s advice is received by the Department of Education and Science in spring 2007, after which it will be decided what changes to make and how.

Eileen Lawlor, press officer for the department, said summer camps for students and refresher courses could be among the range of issues to be examined, adding that a focus on pre-service training for teachers would also be necessary.

Regarding bonus points, she says: “The general approach in the Reports on the Points Commission was to move away from an emphasis on extra points, due to the distortion this gives rise to in relation to student choices and entry arrangements. While a suitable supply of maths, technology, engineering and science graduates are essential for the economy, it is important that students have a balanced and equitable range of choices that meets the diverse range of interests and aptitudes among the school-going population and which prepares young people for a wide range of employments and for lifelong learning.”

By Niall Byrne