Thursday 23 February 2017

Problems multiply as our students struggle with maths

Teachers say that Project Maths, the new second-level syllabus, is "too difficult, too vague and too long'', reports Kim Bielenberg

Education Minister Ruairi Quinn at the launch of Maths Week
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn at the launch of Maths Week

Teachers have warned that pupils are struggling to get to grips with the new second-level maths syllabus.

Project Maths has been billed as a panacea for the subject.

The worthy aim of the new syllabus, which is currently being introduced on a phased basis, is to put more emphasis on problem solving and the practical application of Maths, rather than rote learning and abstract principles.

For example, a pupil studying probability might throw dice to see how often a double six comes up. Students may study statistics by carrying out actual surveys.

Employers' groups and curriculum planners hope that this practical approach will help to raise standards, but its implementation is regarded as ham-fisted by many teachers.

Elaine Devlin, an ASTI representative on the Teaching Council, said the Government made a major blunder in introducing the subject in first year and fifth year simultaneously.

Ms Devlin, a teacher at De La Salle Secondary School in Dundalk, said: "It is disastrous. Project Maths should have been introduced in first year in schools -- and then worked its way up the school. Then the adjustment would have been much easier.

"We now have a group of students in fifth year who studied for years under the old system, and now they have to learn under a completely different system.

"Many of them are good students, but they are being discouraged, because they find the new syllabus too long, too difficult and too vague.

"It is a great idea to have students doing practical things, like measuring plants. But the course is almost impossible to cover, particularly in large classes of up to 32.

"Many students at ordinary level also find the questions too wordy,'' she said.

Brendan O'Sullivan, secretary of the Irish Maths Teachers Association (IMTA) said: "We support the introduction of Project Maths.

"However it was a mistake to introduce it in fifth year as well as first year.''

As early as two years ago, members of the IMTA warned that a big-bang approach (the start of the new syllabus at Junior and Leaving Cert at the same time) was the wrong option.

The Government hopes that Project Maths will encourage more students to take the subject at Higher Level in the Leaving Cert.

At present only 16% of students take the more difficult paper, and curriculum planners have a target of 30%.

All seven universities in Ireland now give bonus points for higher level maths in the Leaving Cert. Students may now receive 25 extra points for doing the more difficult paper.

Teachers and educationists believe more could be done to overcome the fear factor at Leaving Cert.

At present universities require students to achieve at least a D at Ordinary or Higher level in order to fulfil minimum entry requirements.

There is a significant cohort of students who find the ordinary level paper too easy, but perceive that higher level is too difficult or time-consuming.

They do not want to take the risk of spoiling their chances of university entrance by taking the more challenging paper.

Eoin Gill of the Centre for the Advancement of Learning of Maths, Science and Technology (CALMAST) said: "There should be a system where students can take an ordinary level paper first in order to get the minimum qualification for college, and then take the higher level paper.

"That would do away with the risk of missing out on university, because you had a bad day in the exam,'' said Gill, who is organiser of Maths Week, which runs until Saturday.

Other teachers also support an overhaul of the exam system to discourage able maths students from dropping out.

"I would support the introduction of a system that would allow students to get the ordinary level paper out of the way first,'' said Elaine Devlin of the ASTI. "Perhaps it could even be done in Fifth Year.''

The Economic Survey of Ireland produced by the OECD last week mentioned our maths crisis, and highlighted the problems visible at primary level.

The report said primary teachers varied widely in their maths knowledge.

Maths accounted for only 12% of the instruction time among Irish 9- to 11-year-olds, well below the OECD average. This problem is now being addressed in schools.

Another report on maths teaching in Ireland by Engineers Ireland highlighted the lack of continuity between primary and second-level schools.

The report also said the use of calculators had reduced mathematical understanding.

Irish Independent

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