OPINION: What’s your worst memory of mathematics from high school? And the best? Unless you’re a mathematician now, I’d bet the first answer came much faster than the second.
Mathematics is the enabling discipline. It provides the foundation and framework necessary for major advancements within such fields as: science; engineering; technology; and finance. Pilot studies at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) reveal employers' attitudes are unanimously positive towards graduates with strong mathematical skills.
Those who answered “My teacher” to the first question above will not be surprised to learn that one contributing factor to the image problem of mathematics within Australia is a critical shortage of qualified and engaging maths teachers across the country.
These shortages result in many students being taught by educators who never intended teaching mathematics. This dangerous trend is being underpinned by approximately 50% of secondary school principals who require teachers to teach outside their field of expertise as a strategy to deal with staffing shortages. The old stereotype of “the PE teacher reluctantly trying to teach maths” lives on.
Other students are not being taught mathematics at an appropriate level. Driving this is a decline in the qualifications of Australian high school mathematics teachers, as currently 40% of senior maths teachers do not have a three-year university degree in mathematics, as opposed to 30% in 1999. This means that many maths teachers are simply unable to teach upper-level mathematics syllabuses, so these courses are not offered to students at their schools.
Connecting with students
In light of the above, many high-school students perceive mathematics as irrelevant, esoteric and far too difficult.
Earlier this year, the Office for Learning and Teaching (OLT) announced a round of funding aimed at enhancing the quality and increasing the quantity of mathematics teachers, in response to a recent report from Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb.
While it is clear that both the OLT and Chubb’s office have been carefully considering how to increase the supply of effective maths teachers within our schools, a holistic approach to investing in mathematics for a smarter future also requires us to consider the challenges of mathematics education from a different angle – one that lies outside the classroom.
The future of education will be digital, online, on-demand and mobile. Driving these trends will be the National Broadband Network (NBN) and our already mobile-centric society, with Australia having the second-highest proportion of smartphone penetration in the world.
Open Educational Resources (OER) and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are online movements that offer millions of learners unprecedented access to a free, on-demand and out-of-class education through platforms such as YouTube EDU, Coursera, edX, and Academic Earth. The flexibility and popularity of these digital learning models ensures they are positioned to play a significant role in the future of education.
Beyond the classroom
Bitten by the OER bug in 2008, I began creating low-budget mathematics YouTube videos to offer out-of-class learning support for my students at UNSW. In 2012, I published a free mathematics etextbook to be used in conjunction with my educational videos.
The impact and reach of these unsophisticated OERs on learning has been significant and unanimously positive. Not only have they been downloaded by hundreds of thousands of students, but UNSW teaching surveys over three years reveal 100% of respondents agreed with the statement “I found the YouTube videos to be a valuable learning resource”.
If we take the current crisis in mathematics education within our schools and combine it with the significant challenges of adjusting to the new Australian Curriculum: Mathematics, which is about to be rolled out, then is the time right for OER or a MOOC aimed at Australian high school students in mathematics, linked to the new National Curriculum?
Such a platform could complement the traditional face-to-face teaching model by offering on-demand, out-of-class learning resources to motivate material and to revise, solidify and assess the understanding of mathematical topics.
For example, these OER could feature engaging, high-level edutainment-style elements to inspire and illustrate the need to learn mathematics by painting the big picture through applications. This could be underpinned with educational material that summarises the content of the national curriculum for students looking to revise; and blended with interactive assessment tools that offer more than just mindless calculations.
It is far too convenient to solely blame teachers for inadequacies in mathematics education. Yes, we need to enhance “classical” face-to-face mathematics teaching, but to provide a holistic approach to investing in mathematics for a smarter future we also need to think beyond the classroom.
Dr Chris Tisdell is a senior lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Statistics at UNSW.