Sat | Dec 4, 2021

Editorial | Of mathematics and Mico

Published:Wednesday | April 3, 2019 | 12:00 AM

It is frequently the case in Jamaica that we conflate word with deed. So declarations of intent are presumed to be actions and outcomes.

That, however, is not a predilection anyone would associate with The Mico University College, which has been training teachers in Jamaica for more than 180 years. That is why we look forward to the college’s next steps after its big conference recently in search of solutions to Jamaica’s problem in teaching and learning mathematics.

Its answers, if any were found, oughtn’t to be kept within the confines of policymakers, or the halls of policymakers. They should be widely shared, leading, hopefully, if worthy, to wide embrace and public ownership.

Jamaica’s problem with math is, of course, real. At grade four, for instance, under the curriculum that was the basis of the primary-system transformation this year, approximately a third of students, nine- and 10-year-olds, don’t reach mastery of the subject for the age/grade level.

The performance is slightly worse at grade six, when children transition to high school under what used to be called the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT). The grade figures are likely to be challenging in the short term under the hurriedly implemented Primary Exit Profile exam, which, more than GSAT, demands critical thinking from students.

At the high-school level, in the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate, despite substantial gains of recent years, only 57 per cent of students received the qualifying grades one to three. Put differently, 43 per cent of the students who write the exam don’t make the cut. And that doesn’t take into account the one-fifth, or more, of the grade-11 cohort that is screened out of the exam or otherwise fell by the wayside.

But that is not the full extent of the problem. For, as the Government’s 2013 policy guidelines on mathematics noted, “With less than 20 per cent of a given secondary cohort leaving the formal education system with mathematics qualifications, there is a small percentage of the population able to access the opportunities which are and will become available in the coming years.”

LEARNT FEAR

A perhaps small, but notable, observation at the Mico conference by Paul Riccomini, a professor at America’s Penn State University, was that the perceived fear of math, which translates into this poor performance, is not a peculiarly Jamaican characteristic. “It is something that is very much a problem in the United States,” he said.

But it is more significant, in our view, that the anxieties surrounding mathematics is not somehow encoded in our DNA. “Children are not born fearing math,” professor Riccomini said. “They learn that.”

Those negative feelings start in the home, persist in the wider society, and also exist in school – the presumption and perception that math is difficult and, therefore, accessible to only a few.

It is a fact that math is not easy, and it can’t be presented as such. But there are many things Jamaicans master that aren’t easy. In those cases, they are not hobbled by the anxieties to which Professor Riccomini referred with regard to mathematics. In other words, we are in need of strategies for children to unlearn those fears, or, better, not to develop them in the first place.

Mico, as implied by its hosting of the conference, should be at the forefront of this transformation and should not be limited by the offering of the overseas participations, as useful as those may be. As a teacher-training institution, it ought to have the skills to develop culture-specific pedagogy for Jamaican students, including communication tools that take math out of the silo in which it has for too long existed and into this world where we all live and where we can all be successful. Mico, in this regard, has to embrace all of us.