How Can We Satisfy Students’ Appetites To Be Better At Maths?
I suspect that many educators, parents and employers believe that today’s high school students aren’t generally interested in mathematics (maths).
What we see in the media and discuss amongst ourselves tends to reinforce this belief.
And this is not without some justification. A recent research paper authored by Margarita Psaras, Martin Mulcare and David Barnes in July 2021 found that participation in intermediate and advanced maths courses in Australia in Year 12 is very low and has declined over time.
Their research showed that
- Only around 30% of Australian Year 12 students are studying intermediate or higher mathematics compared with 35% in 2008 and around 47% as recently as 1998.
- Of significant concern, only approximately 7% of female Year 12 students study higher maths compared with around 12% of males.
- Around 25% of NSW Year 12 students are not studying any mathematics at all.
- These low participation rates may exacerbate systemic inequalities across students that require public policy response.
Why are our students shying away from maths?
The authors of the above research, with reference also to research by Dr Sue Thomson from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) point to several reasons, including
- A perception by students that maths is abstract and irrelevant, with complex concepts.
- The risk of maths reducing a student’s ATAR score (Year 12 assessment).
- A national shortage of discipline-specific trained maths teachers. Nationally, about 45% of school principals state that maths and science classes conducted in their high schools are taught by teachers not fully qualified.
While this situation is disturbing WE HAVE SOME POSITIVE NEWS that could also provide the basis for the public policy response that is being called for.
Our CareerHQ data indicates that NSW high school students’ appetite to do maths remains strong.
Data obtained from the use of our career education tools by over 7000 students across more than 150 NSW high schools over three (3) years from 2018 to 2020 shows that maths is the skill that the greatest number of students would most like to improve.
This interest in being better at maths exists consistently across urban and regional areas, and indigenous and non-indigenous students.
If students want to get better at maths but are not electing to study maths in their later years at high school, are we making the subject appealing and relevant enough for our students?
Probably not if the current approach to teaching maths is not converting students’ apparent awareness of the significance of maths into decisions to study maths as an elective subject.
As the number and ability of students studying maths has significant implications for future skills levels and productivity as a nation, this seems worth exploring further.
Let’s start by putting a few things together.
1. We at CareerHQ also know from data collected from NSW high school students that
- 90% of them know little or nothing about local industry in the areas where they attend high school
- and, 62% of them want to do work experience
- and school or study problems is their biggest issue of concern and anxiety.
2. Research quoted above points to one of the key factors contributing to less students studying maths is that it can be perceived to be abstract, irrelevant and complex.
3. Many of us have seen over the last nine (9) years, the tremendous impact that Eddie Woo, a former Cherrybrook High School maths teacher (who was awarded Australia’s Local Hero in 2018) has had in teaching mathematics differently for engagement and more practical application.
These things suggest to us at CareerHQ that
1. Our governments and educators should be responding to and capitalising on students’ interests and appetite to improve their maths skills.
2. Maths curricula in our high schools could and should be adapted to offer mathematics in a way that is seen by students to be more relevant and applicable to real world situations (while still preserving scope for our best maths students to do more abstract higher level maths).
3. And in the process, why can’t we teach maths in a way that is related to industries and careers (engineering, building, insurance, accounting, data analytics etc). This would align things such as statistics, graphs, algebraic formula etc. to things beyond school. It would also offer the scope for high schools to work in conjunction with local industry to enable students to experience maths in the workplace, leading to better knowledge of local employment prospects and work experience opportunities – both of which students need and are looking for.
This or a similar approach would seem to be an appropriate response to the call by researchers for a public policy response to declining maths participation and to what the voices of young Australians are telling CareerHQ.