Maths – Why Not?
This article consists of edited extracts from the Australian Government’s Maths – Why Not? report, prepared by Greg McPhan, John Pegg, Ray Cooksey and Trevor Lynch from the National Centre for Science, ICT and Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia (SiMERR) and by Will Morony from the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT).
Concerns are currently being expressed about Australia’s capacity to produce a critical mass of young people with the requisite mathematical background and skills to pursue careers that are needed to maintain and enhance the nation’s competitiveness.
Internationally, Australia’s 15-year-old students perform very well on the mathematical literacy scale in terms of knowledge and skills, as investigated by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for 2002 and 2003 (OECD 2004). However, enrolments in higher-level mathematics courses are declining as students increasingly opt for elementary or terminating courses (Thomas, 2000; Barrington, 2006).
The range of issues that impact on the teaching and learning of maths include the qualifications, supply and retention of mathematics teachers; course structures in schools; access to, and uptake of, professional development in schools; the nature of teacher preparation courses; and the lowering or removal of mathematics prerequisites for entry into courses in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These are deeply ingrained issues and trends. Sustained, collaborative effort on a range of fronts is required to address them.
Against this background, the Maths? Why Not? project has investigated the decline in student interest and enrolments in higher-level mathematics courses in the senior years of schooling and beyond. The project was funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations under the Australian Government Quality Teacher Programme (AGQTP) and carried out by a team from the National Centre for Science, ICT and Mathematics Education for Rural and Regional Australia (SiMERR) and the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (AAMT).
The project focused on perceptions and issues at the time of students’ formal decision making about senior school mathematics subjects at Year 10. The research question was: Why is it that capable students are not choosing to take higher-level mathematics in the senior years of schooling?
The research included a survey of mathematics teachers, staff working as careers counsellors, and students in Years 10 and 11. Responses were received from 399 teachers, 240 from metropolitan and 159 from rural or regional areas, covering all States and Territories. Responses were received from 120 career counsellors, 81 from metropolitan and 39 from rural or regional areas. Of the 91 Year 10 and 11 students who responded to the survey 68 per cent were male and 89 per cent were from rural or regional areas. While 80 per cent of student respondents had access to higher-level mathematics courses, only 37 per cent indicated that they would be undertaking such a course in 2007. Of this sub-group, the great majority, 94 per cent, were male.
The student survey questions were intended to measure four groups of influences on students’ subject choice, and these supplemented survey data from teachers and career professionals:
Both teachers and career professionals viewed the appeal of less demanding subjects as very important in guiding students’ enrolment decisions, with 71 per cent of teachers and 81 per cent of career professionals describing this factor as ‘very influential’ or ‘extremely influential’. Students’ experiences of junior mathematics were also perceived as important, with 62 per cent of teachers and 74 per cent of career professionals identifying this as very or extremely influential. Individual influences on students, such as their interest and self-evaluated mathematics ability, were perceived as important, while school-based factors such as timetabling, course delivery and resourcing were perceived as relatively uninfluential. During focus group discussions, teachers suggested that students were deterred from demanding mathematics courses by a curriculum framework that favours extra content over consolidation of previous skills. The increasingly hectic nature of student schedules, leaving little time for the heavy workloads of advanced mathematics subjects, was also a recurrent theme.
Teachers' Perceptions of School Influences on Students' Decision Making re Higher-level Mathematics (left to right: Timetable - Metropolitan; Regional/Rural; Availability of course - Metropolitan; Regional/Rural; Composite class/distance education - Metropolitan; Regional/Rural; Appeal of less demanding subjects - Metropolitan; Regional/Rural; Experience of junior maths - Metropolitan; Regional/Rural; Quality of teaching resources - Metropolitan; Regional/Rural)
Overall, the teachers felt that students need a substantial level of prior achievement in mathematics in order to sustain interest in and liking for the subject at higher levels. For the same reason teachers and career counsellors also described the need for students to have a realistic self-perception of their ability.
All categories of respondents highlighted the impact of mathematics teachers in guiding students’ choice of subjects at senior level. For many students parental approval was also important. Many students said they chose subjects to maximise their Year 12 score; however, significantly more students spoke about the relevance of mathematics for learning and for life. This was true for both those studying higher-level maths and those opting not to take these subjects in the subsequent year.
Students' Views of the Advantages and Disadvantages in doing Higher-level Mathematics
Regional and rural students were seen as more likely than metropolitan students to take higher-level courses in a composite class and/or by distance education, to be influenced by perceptions that higher-level courses are very difficult, and to be influenced by the advice of teachers.
The recommendations are grouped in six broad themes identified through the research. These themes provide a holistic approach for schools, education authorities and universities to respond to the issue of declining enrolments in higher-level mathematics courses.
Mathematics teaching and learning
1. That educational authorities actively support the teaching of mathematics in the primary and junior secondary years to ensure that it is directed towards maximising the pool of students for whom higher-level mathematics in the senior years at school is a viable and attractive pathway. There should also be a culture of sustainable professional development within schools.
2. That educational authorities have in place mechanisms that identify students, or which enable students to self-identify, as in need of support programs in mathematics.
3. That further research be conducted into the range of mathematics-specific issues that emerged as possible influences on students’ engagement and decision making.
4. That Federal, State and Territory governments, in consultation with education authorities, schools systems and other stakeholder groups, collaborate to develop and implement a range of incentives that encourage mathematics graduates into primary and secondary mathematics teaching and address the retention of degree-qualified mathematics teachers in primary and secondary teaching.
Career awareness programs
5. That professional associations of mathematics teachers and career professionals work together to develop, trial and implement career awareness programs for junior secondary and upper primary students. Information should be included about the potential and value of mathematics-rich careers, and also highlight links between careers and students’ evolving understanding of mathematical concepts.
6. That stakeholder groups form partnerships to support the development of school cultures that promote mathematics-rich careers.
The secondary-tertiary transition
7. That tertiary admission authorities, in consultation with State and Territory educational authorities, review their procedures to ensure that tertiary entrance scores incorporate positive incentives to take advanced (and to a lesser extent intermediate) mathematics subjects in Years 11 and 12.
8. That Federal, State and Territory governments, in consultation with industry, develop a program of post-secondary scholarships and/or cadetships for studying and completing mathematics-rich courses at university.
9. That tertiary institutions develop realistic minimum and desirable levels of mathematical background required for the study of tertiary mathematics subjects at university.
10. That further research be conducted into factors in senior secondary students’ decision to enrol in tertiary mathematics-rich courses.
Further research to obtain a more comprehensive picture of influences on students’ decisions to take higher-level mathematics courses
11. That there be an evaluation of the Maths? Why Not? methodology for application to a fully representative sample of Australian students and parents/caregivers.
12. That further research be conducted into the extent of career professionals’ knowledge and practice concerning study and career options in higher-level mathematics.
13. That the Commonwealth and/or other research funding bodies initiate further research that:
Further research to investigate identified influences more deeply
14. That further research be conducted to investigate aspects of effective advice from career professionals and the other advisory influences highlighted in the Maths? Why Not? Project.
Enrolments in mathematics courses
15. That State and Territory curriculum authorities adopt a nationally consistent approach to the reporting of student enrolments across subjects.
16. That State and Territory professional associations consult about desirable levels of student uptake into senior mathematics courses.
Barrington, F 2006, Participation in Year 12 Mathematics across Australia 1995–2004, Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI), Melbourne.
Key Learning AreasMathematics
Subject HeadingsSenior secondary education