I have loved Maths all my life and this led me to undertake an undergraduate degree in Applied Mathematics and subsequently a Masters in Financial Mathematics. What has always amazed me is the reaction of people when I mention that Maths is what I have studied and/or lectured. Generally the reaction is either “I loved Maths at school” or more normally “I was never good at Maths”. Maybe it’s the same for other subjects but I don’t think so. It’s almost like it’s a badge of honour for people which I find very disheartening. There are a lot of people who struggle with English but I don’t think it’s the first thing that they lead with in a conversation. I know that I am biased, in that Maths is where I’m at, so I’m keenly aware of others perceptions of it, but what I find most difficult is the social acceptability that people are ‘not good’ at Maths.
Maths is a subject that is studied by students in Ireland from preschool right up through school. You would imagine, that a subject that forms a very strong basis of the school curriculum, would be something that people would be very proficient in by the time they leave school. I am often shocked as a lecturer by the lack of understanding of what really are the basics of Maths topics. Manipulations of basic algebraic formulae such as solving for x in 2(x+3) = -4x – 5 and performing calculations with fractions seem to cause students huge difficulties. Even students who don’t have issues with these types of operations often struggle with being able to apply the concepts in straightforward applications. And the ‘get out of jail’ card for many of these students is ‘I was never good at Maths’.
Of course then there are the students who are absolutely petrified of Maths. In my ten years lecturing Maths, I have had more than a few students who are like rabbits in the headlights in Maths class. The first few weeks are always touch and go as to whether they will stay or bolt. In discussions with many of these students over the years, I have been shocked to discover that Maths is one of the subjects that they most fear in their Computer Science courses. This never makes sense to me, as for many of these students, Maths is one of the few subjects that they will have seen before. This should be the subject that gives them comfort as they struggle with topics such as programming, networking etc. What gives me a great sense of personal satisfaction is when these same students tell me that they will miss Maths.
There has been a lot of discussion about the issues with Maths education in Ireland over the past few years. The new Project Maths syllabus has been introduced which is being rolled out on a phased basis. I’m really looking forward to the rollout of Project Maths over the next few years – before I looked into the changes which are proposed in the new Maths syllabus I was concerned about what was being removed from the syllabus. Since then, I have had a look at the changes and while some topics are being removed and others are being pared back I think that the emphasis on applications is a very positive step forward. It is absolutely crucial that students can place Maths in context. Hearing students say that they will never use Maths, as they use Maths concepts without even thinking about it, shows how disconnected Maths as a subject has become from everyday life. Anything that reverses this must be good.
While I welcome the change in emphasis in the Maths curriculum in second level, I personally don’t think it should happen in isolation. I think we need to address the elephant in the room, which is the social acceptability of the lack of ease with Maths. This often manifests itself in the home. Parents who themselves are not confident in their Maths ability often pass on these insecurities about Maths to their children without even being aware of it. Many parents, whose children are in primary school, often feel ill equipped to help their children with their Maths homework as they move up the classes. If the child feels insecure in their own ability in Maths by the time they leave primary school, then ‘not being good’ at Maths becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as they tackle more abstract Maths concepts. I would love to see a real engagement with parents over the coming years. Supporting parents to conquer their own Maths demons, will surely only help to overcome the Maths demons of the upcoming generation before they manifest themselves.
As always thoughts etc. gratefully accepted.