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Monday 28 July 2014

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 www.examinations.ie. 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.

3 Read all 'word-problems' at least twice and try to figure out what they are asking.

Underline all keys words. These questions are the most treacherous aspect of Project Maths – not all the information given in the question will be relevant to the answer, since the questions are usually adapted from real-life sources. If you think a question is ambiguous, it might be a good idea to state what your interpretation of the question is. If you find the question unclear, so probably will many others and all reasonable answers will be accepted. Last year, you could get three marks out of five on the honours paper by looking at two graphs and stating that the percentage of people in mortgage arrears between 2009 and 2011 "had changed".

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.

In spite of appearances, it's still maths and not English Paper 3.

 

That's it. Practise thoroughly, read the paper very, very, very carefully and write down everything relevant that you know.

The main problem with Project Maths is the highly idealistic assumption on the part of its architects that students can suddenly solve, or even partly solve, very difficult problems within minutes of reading them. Over the course of the past two years, our students were required to be instant seismologists, actuaries, goldsmiths and robot engineers. I'll quote my 83-year-old father: "How can you expect the average teenager to be suddenly expert at solving one very difficult problem after another? That's something that may take a lifetime to achieve."

Personally I'm unconvinced that an ability at problem-solving, as distinct from problem-creating, is something of which the Project Maths wizards themselves are necessarily in possession.

In short, Project Maths has in itself become its own Project Maths-style problem.

Irish Independent

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