On Friday 8th of March I attended the ‘Why Maths Matters‘ conference in University of Limerick. The day was about ‘taking stock, examining practice and developing policy’. At the start of the conference Sean Sherlock TD reminded us of the Thomas Davis quote “educate that you may be free”. There were a few threads which were begun by Sean and picked up by many speakers throughout the day. My take away messages from the conference were the importance of having a population who recognise the importance of Maths in the world around them and the need for a coordinated conversation about Maths.
Professor Bill Barton from Auckland University spoke at length about the ‘Maths problem’. The main thrust of his presentation was that there is no easy fix to the problem but that an emphasis on problem solving, abstraction, generalisation and logical reasoning is a step in the right direction. He also spoke about the importance of students confidence around Maths and suggested that at certain times this might be more important than Maths competence. Bill emphasised how it is ‘no longer acceptable for people to say I can’t do Maths’ and the importance of ‘a population who understands the power and recognises the opportunities provided by mathematical analysis’. As a mathematician and educator I also see these two areas as of critical importance. The social acceptability that people are ‘not good’ at Maths, and the disconnection that people feel from the Maths they learn and the Maths they use in the world around them, prompted me to write a blog post over a year ago, one of my most popular posts and the post that prompted the most discussion.
During the day we heard from many speakers about the importance of starting early to engage students in Mathematical thinking, the gender divide in Irish education, the importance of empowering teachers, recent developments in Maths Education in Ireland and the Mallow community initiative to research and pilot initiatives and developments in the teaching of mathematics and science.
Bill Lynch from the NCCA spoke about the rollout of the new Project Maths sylabus. The early indications are good notwithstanding some issues that need to be ironed out. Evidence from the pilot schools suggests an increase in student engagement with Maths and a changing role for the teacher in the classroom. Challenges include the time needed to cover the syllabus and difficulties around solving unfamiliar problems. There has been a lot of discussion around the introduction of Project Maths over the past few years. As with any significant change like this there will be issues but I personally think that it is a step in the right direction. I know that’s easy for me to say because I’m not dealing directly with the impact of the curriculum but I think that with some adjustment Project Maths can deliver what was intended.
The conference concluded with a very entertaining and engaging presentation by Elizabeth Oldham from Trinity followed by a panel discussion. Elizabeth took us through curricula changes over the past 50 years both in Ireland and elsewhere. She distinguished between the intended, implemented and attained curricula and urged caution when comparing the intentions of one curriculum with the implementation of a previous one. Again the issue of lack of sufficient time to cover the syllabus came up in relation to Project Maths. On a related topic Elizabeth drew our attention to the fact that as a nation our recommended minimum time for Maths in schools is less than most other European countries. As with all things we must live with the consequences of our actions in this regard.
Both Bill Barton and Elizabeth Oldham spoke about cross national studies like PISA and TIMSS. I’ll leave you with Elizabeth’s views ‘these studies not only compare the incomparable, they rationalise the irrational!’.