independent

Friday 25 April 2014

New Project Maths course causes multiple divisions

Critics claim the syllabus doesn't add up. Kim Bielenberg reports on the pluses and minuses

Working it out: At the Dr Maths Workshop in Engineers Ireland were students from Marian College, from left, Edward Dunne (12), Ruairi Quinn TD, Minister for Education and Skills, Jordan Byrne (12), Cian Colclough (13) and Dr Maths

The new Project Maths curriculum continues to cause controversy with parents and teachers complaining that its implementation has been botched.

Supporters of the syllabus say it engages students more and helps them to learn Maths and apply it in real-life situations.

In one of last year's Leaving Cert paper, candidates were asked to work out the probability of an Irish home with a mortgage being in negative equity.

The course is supposed to rely less on rote learning and more on practical problem-solving skills.

As one teacher put it: "The students can get out of the classroom and look at something like a building or a tree in three dimensions and start thinking in terms of angles or heights. It brings Maths to life."

While there was widespread acceptance that Maths needed reform, the implementation of the new course is causing stress among students.

Controversy over Project Maths recently erupted on Joe Duffy's Liveline.

After students received the results of their Mock exams, parents complained that students who had previously done well in the subject were failing badly.

Two teachers who are well known opponents of the syllabus voiced criticism on the programme. They claim that questions in exam papers test literacy as much as mathematical skill, and reward students for waffle.

There is common agreement among teachers that the curriculum planners made a spectacular blunder in introducing the curriculum in fifth year and first year simultaneously.

This has meant that Leaving Cert students have had to acquire a whole new way of learning Maths without any foundation in earlier years.

A survey by the Irish Maths Teachers Association and a recent report by the Education Research Centre both show that this is a leading cause of complaint among teachers.

Although the impression given on Liveline was overwhelmingly negative, some teachers welcome the changes, however, with certain reservations.

Eleanor Nolan, Leaving Cert teacher at Yeats College in Sligo, said: "I am one of those who supports Project Maths. It helps student to learn to use the subject in a context outside school.

"They should be able to think about trigonometry by looking at a tree in a garden. It gets them visualising Maths.

"Statistics and probability are an important part of the course now. It's a very good introduction

"Some people complain that the questions are too wordy and there is too much English in the course, but it makes perfect sense when you are dealing with statistics that they should not only be able to draw the graph, but also explain what it means."

It is too early to say how Project Maths has affected standards, but the early response of teachers is mixed.

In a recent survey, Irish Maths teachers were asked whether they thought the new syllabus would improve achievement in the subject.

Some 57.5pc said it would not improve achievement, while 42.5pc said it would. The survey found common agreement on both sides of this debate that the course should have been introduced in first year only, and phased in as students rose through the years.

Teachers also believe that more time needs to be allocated to Maths on the timetable.

Some teachers report mixed feelings about the new Maths course. They support the new teaching methods, but believe that there is a need for more teacher training and clearer information about exam papers.

Sean MacCormaic, chairman of the Irish Maths Teachers Association, said: "There have been a few teething problems. Nothing is cast in stone, and the course can be changed.

"In five or six years' time it will be seen to be a good programme that brings huge benefits. It is working out better for the students who started in first year than those who have had to make a quick adjustment in fifth year.

"There were a lot of problems with the old Maths course.

"Students were learning by rote and knew the mechanics of a problem, but they did not necessarily understand it.

"If a question was asked in a different way they could be completely lost."

Sean MacCormaic, who teaches at Good Counsel School, New Ross, Co Wexford, acknowledged that the new syllabus was causing stress among Leaving Cert pupils who struggled in the mock exams.

"Perhaps it is not a good idea having a mock exam at the end of January when the course is not completely covered."

He advised students and parents not to panic, because they could improve in the final exams.

Although there was consternation about last year's Maths exam at Higher level in the Leaving Cert, 98pc of students achieved a pass.

The marking of last year's exam was regarded as incredibly lenient. One contributor to Liveline said that this was a PR exercise aimed at promoting the new syllabus.

One teacher, who saw corrected exam scripts last year, told the Irish Independent: "You could see that changes were made to raise the number of marks. They were giving grades away."

Sean MacCormaic said teachers should concentrate on building up the confidence of students: "In schools the Leaving Cert is a monster. We should try to concentrate on the syllabus and teaching that well, and try to forget a bit about the Leaving Cert.

"If you give a kid confidence and teach the syllabus well they will be well able for the Leaving Cert.

"We shouldn't get too wrapped up in the exams."

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