Thursday 26 April 2018

The project maths course divides teachers -- but does it add up?

From O'Gara's steps to card-playing, teachers try to solve problems with the new syllabus. Kim Bielenberg reports

It is the bright new syllabus that is supposed to revolutionise the teaching of a subject, but in classrooms some teachers are having teething troubles with Project Maths.

The aim of the programme, which is currently being phased in, is to put more emphasis on problem solving.

Teachers concentrate on practical application of maths rather than plain old sums. Students learn using everyday objects.

A pupil studying probability might spend a class throwing dice to see how often a double-six comes up.

In another example, cited by a teacher, students could learn Pythagoras' theorem by studying the steps backwards and sideways by rugby outhalf Ronan O'Gara as he prepares for a penalty kick.

Curriculum planners hope that this practical approach will help to raise standards by moving away from rote learning, but its implementation is regarded as flawed by some teachers.

Elaine Devlin, an ASTI representative on the Teaching Council, said the syllabus was much too vague.

"I am very concerned that it is hard to plan, because we don't know exactly what we are supposed to be teaching.

"It's all up in the air. There is no fluency or natural progression."

Ms Devlin, a teacher at De La Salle Secondary School in Dundalk, said: "There is too much emphasis on probability and statistics to the detriment of algebra and calculus.

"Classic geometry has been re-introduced to the curriculum, but we have no idea what type of questions will be asked in the exams."

She said that some of the practical elements of the course are difficult to implement.

"As an example, teachers are expected to give out packs of playing cards. It is not easy giving out packs when you have 25 or 30 pupils in a class, and you have to make sure you get 52 cards in a pack back.

"There are also disciplinary issues, when you are trying to get a big group to stick to a task."

Brendan Guildea, a maths teacher who co-authors text books for Gill & Macmillan, has been a vocal critic of Project Maths right from the start.

"They have tried to turn maths into something like The X Factor, where people have opinions,'' he said. "They have taken a lot of the maths out of it.

"You can get students to look at a bridge and think happy thoughts about it, but unless you learn the maths and the physics behind it, the bridge won't stand up. Sometimes maths can be difficult, and there is no getting away from it.''

Brendan Guildea said: "One of my problems with it is that it is less a test of numeracy and more a test of literacy.

"You have kids who are very good at maths who struggle with Project Maths, because the questions are much too wordy."

Project Maths seems to be a work in progress, and the syllabus is likely to change, as curriculum planners monitor its progress.

There may be teething troubles, but the new approach also has some staunch advocates.

Castleknock College was one of the pilot schools for Project Maths. Principal Oliver Murphy has welcomed its introduction.

"I think it is ridiculous if people are complaining that it is not predictable enough,'' he said. "That is the virtue of it.

"Students are getting used to the fact that you can't just do it by rote learning. They are presented with a myriad of problems, and they have to tackle them.

"For example, there was a recent question about how much plastic is needed by a grower to make a polytunnel.

"That is the sort of problem that people have to face in their everyday lives and in their jobs."

Oliver Murphy does not accept that the questions are too wordy.

"Literacy should be as relevant in maths as it is in other subjects. I believe it is good if students have to interpret problems and move from English into maths. That is what you have to do in life."

Sean Ashe, a former president of the Irish Maths Teachers Association, is another supporter. He said: "It will take time for teachers to adjust, but it is good that the curriculum is now more relevant.

"The old approach where a teacher just wrote up a formula on the board, and the students learned it off by rote, and did a few questions, was not working.

"Now students can be presented with a problem and they have to break it down logically. That is the approach that is taken in countries such as Finland and it seems to work."

Irish Independent

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