The New Maths

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By Mary McConville


The education authorities are alarmed at the perceived decline in today’s students’ competency in maths. Australian NAPLAN results shows no improvement in the years that it has been testing these skills and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked Australian students at equal 17th in 2012, a lower than the previous ranking of 5th.

To counter this decline the education authorities are considering a new approach to teaching mathematics. It appears that teaching methods will be more flexible and more related to the real world – applied rather than theoretical maths. This sounds good in theory but there may be some problems. There are some suggestions that teachers will throw out the textbooks, formulas and rote learning of the times tables. If this more flexible style of teaching is badly applied it may result in students being expected to constantly reinvent the wheel. There are many mathematical ideas that students have the mental power to understand – if taught – but do not have the mega brains needed to rediscover. Think of the simple idea of zero – a number that is not a solid number, that is, in itself, nothing. It takes some serious brainpower to come up with this idea. Some ancient civilisations didn’t count with zero. I think it was the city of Ur. Um?

With the increasing use of algorithms rather than skilled human brains to determine some of the world’s important processes such as the stock market, it is very important to understand maths so that we can take over when the theories fail.

There are also worries about the scientific literacy of the general population. Australia’s Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chub said that STEM skills, that is, skills in science, technology, engineering and maths were very important for people’s future jobs. There are estimates that 75% of the growing areas of employment will need these skills.

Scientific literacy is very important for the life as well as the work of ordinary citizens. It will help them to analyse and then accept or reject the latest wonder diet, or to enter the debate over the vexed question of climate change. We need to accept that this problem is not solved with unacknowledged political loyalty but with FACTS. It has been noticed that a lot of climate sceptics are politically conservative.

Some intelligent people think that they can’t do maths or science. Some were bored at school and don’t think it’s relevant, some have been badly taught or told that they can’t do these subjects – because they’re a girl, working class, artistic, from a third world country … and so on. Hey, anyone with sense can do it. Try it.


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