Maths, it all adds up to a muddle

About a year ago I wrote a Letter to the Editor of the NZ Herald with a comment on the then announced membership of a Working Group that would prepare the report for the Royal Society Te Aparangi on the teaching and learning of Mathematics in our schools. I asked back then how a set of leaders in Mathematics Education could come to the kinds of conclusions that would bring about change for the better, when they have been the leaders that have taken mathematics to the state it is in.

A year later and a report appears, and my misgivings have not been confirmed and I apologise for that.   But this is not a report that can be ignored! 

The Chairman of the group that has produced this report, Pangarau Mathematics and Tuanga Statistics in Aotearoa New Zealand, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics Gaven Martin, is reported to describe the teaching of mathematics as a “mess”. But it gets worse. Reports state that “gaps were widening between rich and poor”, that there is “nothing intrinsic in the curriculum that has led to this situation (but on the other hand there was “nothing challenging in our curriculum by international standard).” In short students should be doing better and indeed must do better. The report chair voiced a fear that there is not a political appetite to make the changes recommended.

Those recommendations that need to be addressed are:

  • Attending to students falling further behind in the curriculum. Does it take an experts group to suggest that this should happen? Why do we have schools?
  • Attend to the matter of teacher maths knowledge and how they teach maths.
  • Leadership from the Ministry of Education instead of just leaving teachers to fend for themselves! I kid you not.
  • And perhaps the scariest of all – “The way maths education is attended to can only increase inequity.”

I am appalled that not only can these opinions of an expert group have a ring of truth, but also that it is a damning condemnation of the state of a critical subject that no doubt children have an expectation they are preparing for life and their parents simply have the right to know that this is being done and being done well. Does this call for a wider review? If Maths – a “gatekeeper” subject – is like this, what assurances are there about other subjects? If it wouldn’t take time that we cannot afford, it is material for a Curriculum Review.

Other reports have said much the same thing about a variety of issues. But there simply seems to be a lack somewhere of willingness to tackle the issues. Or perhaps it is a case of what G.K. Chesterton talked about when he argued that “it isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”

The expert group that has written this report is to be congratulated and the leader, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics Gaven Martin and his team are to be thanked for the frank and unpalatable conclusions. He is right: “It’s a goddamn mess, and things are not getting better. And the consequences are pretty horrific, so something has to be done!”

The least we should expect is a clear response from the Ministry of Education.

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