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Sunday 21 September 2014

Quinn is right, every teacher needs a sound knowledge of maths to help pupils progress

Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain

Published 25/04/2014 | 02:30

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We need to foster a love of maths in primary school children
We need to foster a love of maths in primary school children

It's not often you find yourself agreeing with a politician but, when Education Minister Ruairi Quinn announced this week that he would set a standard in mathematics for initial teacher education in the primary sector, I did tip my hat to him.

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Currently, you can be accepted into university to become a primary school teacher with a D3 in ordinary-level mathematics.

Mr Quinn believes this should change and, similar to Irish, students should be required to achieve at least a C grade in higher-level mathematics in order to be accepted on to primary teaching courses through the CAO.

While there are very many other worthy topics to discuss in education, and mathematics is only one strand in the broad spectrum of our education system, as an initial teacher educator and PhD researcher with the School of Education, Trinity College Dublin, I agree with him on this matter.

In Ireland, we have some of the best primary teachers in the world and I am proud to come from a family steeped in primary school teaching. In Ireland, the calibre of student entering into initial teacher education is very high and our teachers should be publicly commended for the creativity and innovation incorporated into primary classrooms.

In the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy study (PIRLS, 2011) of fourth-class students, Ireland performed above the international average and the recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA, 2012) results are also worth highlighting and celebrating.

But at the same time, Irish primary students have not performed well in mathematical problem-solving, shape and space (geometry), and measure (results from Trends in International Mathematics and Science 2011) and we are still below international averages in the numbers of students taking mathematics at higher level in secondary school.

While we do have much to celebrate about our teachers and our students, we also should focus on the fact that mathematics should be taught for understanding and not procedure. Anecdotally, a neat copy book or work-book page filled with only answers and no workings does not qualify as mathematics.

In developing mathematical understanding and fostering problem-solving skills, students should be encouraged to show all of their thinking processes and rough-work.

Students should be encouraged to have fun with mathematics, to explore the patterns and numbers they are dealing with, and to have discussions with classmates about the maths they are working on.

In order to employ these approaches, teachers require a deep knowledge of mathematics that is not met by a D3 grade at ordinary level in the Leaving Cert.

My colleague and initial teacher educator in St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, Aisling Twohill, agrees: "In all areas of mathematics, children ask challenging and potentially very interesting questions. If a teacher does not have enough confidence in their mathematical content knowledge, there is a temptation to avoid such questions by sticking strictly to the text book. The National Assessment of Mathematics and English Reading (2009) found that many teachers in Irish primary schools rely heavily on textbooks, thereby limiting children's opportunity to develop robust problem-solving skills or independence in their approach to mathematics. Also teachers may tend to teach procedures by rote rather than teaching for understanding if their own mathematical understanding is limited."

In education research we refer to knowing how to do mathematics as 'content knowledge' and knowing how to teach a particular subject as 'pedagogical content knowledge'.

In my view, both are required in equal measure. Of course it's not enough to know how to do mathematics to be a good teacher, but equally, it's not enough to know how to teach a student without an in-depth knowledge of the topic you are introducing. Studies show that the more mathematical content knowledge a teacher has, the better their students' achievements in mathematics.

While there are many initial teacher education courses preparing teachers well in this regard, it should not be a roll of the die as to what our children and students experience as 'mathematics'.

Worryingly, in a study conducted by Oldham and Forrest in 2008, none of the 80 pre-service primary teachers assessed achieved full marks in the SIGMA-T primary school maths test and, even worse, very many of them failed.

International research has shown that in order to teach mathematics for understanding, teachers require specialised content knowledge and a D3 at ordinary level mathematics is well below the standard required.

The PMISG report (2010) would suggest that, like other Leaving Cert students, those entering into primary teacher education drop higher-level mathematics in order to achieve 'easier' points in another subject. This is something of self-perpetuating problem.

Secondary students don't want to risk failing higher-level maths so they sit the ordinary-level exam. This leads to fewer undergraduates taking mathematics and engineering courses at third level and to fewer undergraduates specialising in teaching mathematics. In turn, this leads to less-qualified teachers teaching mathematics, leading to fewer students wanting to continue studying it at a higher level.

This cycle has to stop. The Department of Education has set about up-skilling the 48pc of out-of-field mathematics teachers in secondary schools, and now, the Education Minister is looking to tackle the issue at the primary level.

I know that many primary teachers will disagree with this view, and I also acknowledge that there are very many wonderful primary school teachers in the country without higher-level mathematics, but it certainly doesn't account for everyone.

It's interesting to note that, up until 1992, primary teachers could only enter the profession with an honour grade in Irish and English, and while they only required a C in ordinary-level mathematics they also had to sit a number of interviews. Perhaps the underlying debate here is our dependence on the CAO system as the only matriculation for our undergraduate students and many pre-service teachers, but while this system is in place a D3 in ordinary-level mathematics is not sufficient to teach mathematics.

Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain is a broadcaster and researcher at the School of Education, TCD

Irish Independent

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