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The importance of studying maths

By Sam Di Sano on 14 August 2019NSWstaffroomMotivationSTEM

I come to this topic from a perspective of wisdom through age rather than appreciation through passion. Disappointingly I gave up on Mathematics too early in life, once it began challenging me, convinced I had little use for it or that it was relevant to me. As a parent and educator, I later realised its value and worth and have a far greater appreciation for Mathematics and Science study. I know this is not an uncommon phenomenon for it can still be disarming for parents when their child comes home from school frustrated with the results of their latest Maths exam. More than any other subject area, Maths is often associated with anxiety related to poor performance and negative attitudes.

One of the biggest gender gaps in education is also seen in maths. Girls in most countries complete less, or lower level, maths than boys. This low number of girls participating in advanced maths courses is not because they are any worse at maths (often they are better), but generally less confident in their maths skills than say, literary ability.

Young people, irrespective of gender, generally also question the relevance of maths. As parents it is not always easy to answer that, especially if we had our own doubts about its relevance when we were their age.

The best place to start I found, is to explain that maths tuition is largely skills-based rather than scientific. That is, by and large children at school are taught to apply formulas rather than study what mathematics actually is, so it actually has a great deal of application and relevance to their life.

Maths guru Eddie Woo explains it well when he says Mathematics is a study of repeating patterns, quantities, shapes, and relationships. Encouraging young children who are struggling with the subject to think about and use maths in everyday contexts can certainly help unravel the wonderful world of Mathematics for them. Giving them a copy of Adam Spencer’s books on Maths is also something to consider in order to jolt their curiosity - try any one of The World of Numbers (2015), The Numbers Game (2018), The Top 100 (2018), The World of Numbers (2018).

Helping children appreciate and understand Maths use in everyday circumstances may help kickstart an interest and inquisitive joy without realising it - anything and everything from repeating patterns in car number plates to statistics from their favourite sport.

Perhaps if there is a limitation at school though, it is this same utilitarian focus on skill development rather than authentic everyday problem solving and discovery which may turn other children away. After all, many mathematicians lament the overemphasis on this skills based instruction at the expense of mathematical reasoning, problem solving and modelling. This may have something to do with the percentage of students studying Advanced and Intermediate Mathematics free falling between 2000 and 2014.

Undeniably, secondary school enrolments in higher-level maths and science are low in Australia as we enter the third decade of the 21st century. While there are now significantly more Year 12 students than in the final decade of the 20th century, the number of students studying maths, physics, chemistry and biology all decreased significantly.

Added to our concerns about Maths, there is also much concern about Australia’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) crisis, and the need for new initiatives to engage young people.

More Australian students now complete high school and go on to university than ever before, yet ironically, in a world that has an ever increasing need for STEM study, HSC graduates are less well prepared to enter STEM courses at university with close to 50% of graduates from high school having with no science study at all.

There are many papers and studies which indicate this alarming downward spiral in Mathematics and Science study in Australia - too many to reference here, but suffice it to say, as parents, adults and educators, we all have a responsibility to present to young people the value and worth of Mathematics (and Science) study so they can take their place in the future, armed with the values, knowledge and skills of a well-rounded education.

References

Australian Government Office of the Chief Scientist Factsheet, (2016), ‘Women in STEM a story of attrition’

Larkin, K., and Jorgensen, R., (2015), ‘I Hate Maths: Why Do We Need to Do Maths?

Kennedy, J., Lyons, T., Quinn, F., (2016) ‘The Continuing decline of Maths and Science enrolments in Australian High Schools’

Mack, J., and Wilson, R., (2015), ‘Trends in Mathematics and Science subject combinations in the NSW HSC 2001 - 2014 by gender ‘

Professionals Australia (2018), ‘All Talk: Gap between policy and practice a key obstacle to gender equity in STEM’


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