We hear a lot about the “maths crisis” in Ireland. Much of it is generated by our relatively low scores in the PISA tests (about which I have tried to sound a caution) but also the results in the Leaving Cert: low numbers getting Honours grades. As an educator in a subject which is somewhat mathematical (& being a bit of a maths-nerd), I am sympathetic to the idea of boosting young people’s maths ability.
This article highlights a recent discussion paper from the National Competitiveness Council which suggests a number of measures to this end including enhanced bonus points for maths in the Leaving Certificate. I haven’t read the report but on the face of it, this seems like a logical step: if you want to encourage something, raise the rewards.
But there is something about bonus points that bothers me. One is that the reward from knowing maths should be intrinsic: its interesting by itself and allows one to do other interesting things like physics and economics. So essentially bonus points are a bribe. If it works then that’s fine, maybe. But what exactly does it mean for this policy to be successful? If the objective is to increase the numbers doing Higher maths at the Leaving Cert’ then this would make sense. This by itself is rather pointless, surely? It is the knock-on effect for third level that is the issue. So what do we expect to happen at third level? If students have to be bribed to do Higher Maths, do we expect them to continue with maths (or related subjects) when they get to university? I doubt it: they are unlikely to forget that they were not really that interested in the subject in the first place. In other words, they will take the bonus points and run – into whatever subjects in university they really want to study. So if the objective is to “build a nation of maths whizzes” then I suggest that this policy is a waste of time. You might say, well, it is a small step in the right direction but there is a danger that it distracts us from the real causes of our low level of mathematical proficiency. I don’t know what they are but I conjecture that it is what goes on in school – rather than at the very end of it- that matters.
One of the nice things about mathematics, is it forces you to be explicit and exact. If we are considering attempts to improve students maths attainment, let us be precise about what we are trying to achieve (and why) so we can see if it works.
As an aside I was fascinated that the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies is putting on a calculus course to enhance school leavers’ knowledge of the subject given the reduction in the amount of calculus taught at Leaving Cert level. It is rather worrying that people with some expertise in the subject feel that the maths level in secondary school has been excessively dumbed down.