Supporting maths teachers in encouraging children to share a passion for maths

By Hannah McDowell Tuesday, June 24, 2014

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With the Internet making our lives easier than ever, are we losing basic numeracy skills? Linda Galligan, associate professor at the University of Southern Queensland, explores this phenomenon in a recent article for the Guardian:

“At a time when we appear to need both a general population and a professional workforce to be highly numerate, the reverse appears to be happening. A recent report from the Australian mathematical sciences institute says that 54% of Australians have only basic numeracy skills, and that 40% of year 7-10 maths classes are taught without a qualified maths teacher.

Today's maths is usually ratio, proportion and percentages with a big dollop of common sense and a bit of confidence. This is taught in primary school, but somewhere along the way many people just turn off their maths brain. When it comes to numbers, the shutters come up, the hands sweat, and it is just easier to ignore it. It's a far cry from the 1970s, when students would leave school having been taught at a high level.

When was the last time you had to convert currency? Easier to Google it, right? What’s the harm in that? I even do it sometimes. But if you seek help all the time, you'll never know how to do solve problems in other situations. So do the maths when you can: stop and think, turn your maths brain on, do the ratio (or percentage) and check to ensure you have done it right – and feel good about it! The method is the same all the time whether checking discounts, rates of pay, or time to get to a destination.

We need more than primary maths, though. It's not just about being able to balance the budget, or ensure you have the right ratio of colour in your hair dye. There is another side to it.

If I mention the word “algebra”, many people start shaking. Students get lost in maths at two levels – at about year 5, when the idea of ratios is introduced, and again around year 8 when the maths starts to get abstract. It's such a pity, as this is when it gets really interesting. When I teach adult students algebra, they often say “oh, is that what it’s all about. Why didn’t teachers tell me about that when I was 14?”. They probably did, but at 14 did you listen to your teachers? I certainly didn’t most of the time.

A deep understanding of basic maths only comes through practice. Nobody really has a maths brain; they just work on it. Over time, as I learned more about mathematics, I became less anxious with not understanding, with making mistakes, and with asking those dumb questions (turns out they weren’t so dumb after all). That took many years. I would love more maths teachers to get that message across, particularly to girls, who can be more sensitive to setbacks. And if you work on it, then a whole world is open to you in terms of quantitative skills you can offer.

If you are a parent, wouldn’t you want your child (in primary or high school) being taught by a teacher who actually has a deep knowledge of the subject? Many teachers already do an amazing job at it, and we need to ensure that all teachers are in this position, particularly as this basic maths is everywhere: in art, in history, in science, and even in English. We need to support our teachers so they can do well – and to give them good, meaningful, well planned, ongoing, professional development in mathematics would be a good start.”

Are you passionate about maths and want your child to share in this? How can we support our maths teachers and help encourage children to take in interest in such an important subject? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Categories: Education