Saturday 24 February 2018

Average performance won't add up for smart economy

John Walshe

IF studying a subject makes you proficient in it, then Ireland should have one of the most mathematically literate populations in Europe, if not the world.

The reasoning is simple.

Even though it's not compulsory, more students take maths in their Leaving Cert than any other subject. Last year 52,000 students (95.8pc of the total) sat the maths exam, nearly 1,000 more than the next most popular subject, English.

The position here contrasts sharply with Britain -- where only a minority of students take maths in their A levels -- and with many other countries.

We may be studying it in much greater percentages than elsewhere, but it is clear that we are not world performers at maths. We are just about average, at a time when average is not good enough if we are serious about developing the smart economy.

For proof, look no further than the OECD performance study of 2006 which ranked us 16th out of 30 countries.

But dig deeper and you find that fewer Irish students achieved the highest proficiency level -- only 10pc compared to 20pc in the high-performing countries of Finland, South Korea and Switzerland.

A poor or mediocre grasp of maths has a knock-on effect in other areas such as science, as a study by Maria Sheehan of the Chemistry Education Research Group at the University of Limerick (UL) has found.

"Put bluntly, many Leaving Certificate and third-level students fail because they have not developed adequate thinking skills to master the material they are taught.

"We need to develop thinking skills rather than memorisation and regurgitation skills," said the group's director, Dr Peter Childs.

He added that "we need investment and research in science and maths education, in developing innovative curricula and in targeted professional development to equip teachers to implement new approaches".

But a separate study by UL's Maire Ni Riordain and Ailish Hannigan makes it clear that we also need to get additional specialist teachers into the system because only half the current maths teachers have a qualification in the subject.

In Britain, financial inducements can be offered for such specialists but they are not a runner here because of the opposition the idea would meet from the teacher unions.

What might work is last week's suggestion from Engineers Ireland that jobless engineers, who are available to do so, should be retrained to go into schools and spread the maths gospel.

The proposal has been welcomed by John White, general secretary of the secondary teachers' union, the ASTI, who said he would be happy to discuss the idea of unemployed engineers as teachers.

Irish Independent

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