Saturday 31 January 2015

Project Maths: The problem with being a guinea pig

Maths teacher Andrew McKimm offers a few tips for Leaving Cert students unwittingly caught in the crossfire of a massive experiment in education

Project Maths, the new course that was supposed to create a nation of young problem-solvers, has spawned a problem that may well prove to be insoluble.

The ill-defined and constantly changing course is being examined via questions that make up 33-50 per cent of the exam papers and which many of our young people can't even attempt. There is an inordinate amount of reading associated with these problems, many of which are couched in ambiguous and impenetrable language.

The Irish, non-mathematical 'solution' to this debacle is to fling marks at everybody and tell them that they're brilliant. In last year's Leaving Certificate Higher Level Paper, if a student attempted every question but got all of them wrong, they could still walk away with a final mark of 47 per cent.

It's as if by bringing in a new syllabus everyone is suddenly going to become more intelligent.

All of this was brought to the attention of the nation with devastating clarity on the Liveline shows of March 6 and 7.

The results of the mock exams had recently become available, and parent after parent bore the same sad tale – diligent students who are unable to cope with the new exam having spent hours preparing for it; teachers who are delivering extra classes before and after school to help get their struggling students through.

One mother mentioned how 85 per cent of her daughter's class had failed.

What can be done to help the unfortunate students who are caught in the crossfire of what one maths teacher has called a "massive experiment in education", an experiment that is using our pupils as guinea pigs?

My advice to my own students in trying to cope with Project Maths stress is not exactly rocket science and is older than Euclid:


1 Know your techniques and proofs backwards.

Refer to the exam papers from the old course, which are still available on An experienced musician or an athlete will seldom go out to perform or play a match without first warming up. Batman won't leave the Batcave without a well-stocked utility belt. Irrespective of which real-world problems the examiners dream up this summer, they can only be solved using traditional methods. For example, a problem with a right-angled triangle will probably involve Pythagoras' Theorem or, to use the near-farcical language of the marking schemes, "some reference to" a sine or cosine.

2 Make sure you attempt every question – leave no blanks.

Even if you're not exactly sure what the question is asking, write down any relevant formula or calculation that pertains to the topic. For example, in one badly answered question, Higher Leaving Certificate students were handsomely rewarded (60 per cent of the marks) for simply drawing a radius to the point of contact of a tangent to a circle.

4 Familiarise yourself with the few 'real-life' problems available in the official sample papers.

They give some small insight into the thought-processes of the examiners and the kind of thinking that they are looking for. Work on these problems with some fellow students and pool your ideas.

5 Keep all verbal answers as succinct and precise as possible.

Irish Independent

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