Editorial | A maths crisis?
People, including young students, are generally proud to declare that they hate maths, wearing it like a badge of honour.
Even though it is a practical subject, many people approach maths with trepidation. They find the subject boring and difficult to navigate. Students sometimes arrive at university and are surprised to find that mathematical concepts are found in a whole slew of subjects, including nursing, archaeology and psychology.
As we well know, not all people are maths-averse, and there are some who embrace figures and are even excited about tackling problems, viewing shapes and formulae as exciting. It may have to do with one’s classroom experience. Many math teachers are quick to warn students about how hard the subject is and may even suggest that only bright people, like themselves, can manage mathematics.
Every year round about this time, there is a national conversation in reaction to the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) results, and this year we note that mathematics is on the decline. A more mathematically literate workforce is crucial if Jamaica hopes to satisfy the job requirements in a world where science, technology, engineering and mathematics are increasingly taking centrestage. So how do we even start to tackle the problem?
The Ministry of Education reported a decline in the number of students who were successful in CSEC mathematics for 2019. The 54.6 percentage passes in mathematics are 3.2 percentage points lower than last year’s, according to ministry figures.
The stand-in minister of education, Karl Samuda, has declared a math crisis. He recently made a plea to retired mathematics teachers to come back to the classroom to help out. That could only be regarded as a temporary fix, for there must be a concrete strategy to elevate mathematics as a practical subject that is relevant to the future of our students and country.
First, we must destroy the myth that there are ‘maths brains’ and then there are others. Experts in education have suggested that, like any other subject, mathematics must be practised until the concepts are fully grasped.
There needs to be a revolution in the teaching of mathematics. Learning to count is one of the first lessons every child would have experienced. Even though there are a whole host of concepts and steps between counting and mastering the intricacies of algebra and geometry, for example, it starts by learning to count. But between that early kindergarten education and the high-school years, something happens and students begin to shun mathematics.
No doubt, there are creative math tutors in the country, but, generally speaking, teaching of the subject is often one-dimensional and unimaginative. Students must see the connection between mathematics and their lives. Many teachers mechanically present the subject without showing how applicable it is to everyday living.
We firmly believe the revolution must begin at the college level where our teachers are trained. A heavy infusion of creativity is needed in mathematics education so that when tutors get to the classroom, they can skilfully introduce context and real-life situations into problem-solving.
Despite the indifferent performance in some schools, there are others that have consistently obtained above-average passes in mathematics. What are they doing differently to achieve such success, and how can they share these methodologies? And when the teachers are found, they should be well compensated if we want to retain their services.
Mr Minister, we know what the problem is, so let’s move urgently from talking and start devising solutions to improve our mathematical proficiency.