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Tech & Science The epic failure at the root of Australia's maths problem

20:25  06 december  2019
20:25  06 december  2019 Source:   abc.net.au

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a person using a laptop: The worse Australian mathematics is perceived to be, the more impossible it becomes to teach. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)© Provided by ABC NEWS The worse Australian mathematics is perceived to be, the more impossible it becomes to teach. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

After 25 years as a successful mathematics teacher, I have packed away my books and will not be returning to the classroom. I no longer wish to teach in Australia.

This decision stems from a combination of factors, including a lack of systemic respect for teachers, over-compliance, superficial regulation and the erosion of teacher autonomy.

The worse Australian mathematics is perceived to be, the more layers of restriction and overbearing compliance and regulation are added, and the more impossible it becomes to teach.

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There's a dearth of qualified mathematics teachers

First let me start by saying that the last 25 years have been amazing. At its best, teaching is the most fulfilling job in the world.

But teaching is all about nurturing and relationships. Most students will only enjoy a subject if they believe that their teacher is interested in them personally.

It is a performing art, not a science, requiring a multiplicity of dispositional skills, including communication, empathy, emotional intelligence and listening ability.

And mathematics teaching requires an additional skill set, akin to that of a logician or scientist.

The paradigms of these often-polarised factors are a small subset of the population, and so excellent mathematics teachers (and science teachers) will always be in short supply.

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This dearth of qualified mathematics teachers has resulted in "out-of-field" teachers taking many mathematics classes, and in the tightening up of regulation and compliance for all mathematics teachers to try to ensure consistency of delivery and student achievement.

This has been an epic failure.

Testing has become more like an Olympiad

The root of the problem does not just lie in a lack of qualified mathematics teachers, however.

Extension mathematics is considered the domain of prodigies, and at the pinnacle of high-school mathematics in NSW are the HSC extension courses.

These courses are vital for our future engineers, scientists and mathematicians (as well as our future mathematics teachers), but participation in these courses is pitifully low and has been decreasing for years.

Many schools do not offer these courses at all (particularly in regional areas where there is often scant capacity to teach them), and if they do, they typically require students and teachers to run them outside the school timetable.

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External assessment of these courses is far too hard, resembling more of a mathematics competition or Olympiad rather than an assessment of learning, which has a direct impact on their uptake.

Our classrooms are overwhelmingly influenced by this inappropriate level of difficulty, resulting in many students failing to complete, or even start, courses of which they may be quite capable.

The only students who thrive in this situation are those who, in the words of UNSW Professor Andrew Martin, have innate "academic buoyancy".

The teaching utopia is a thing of the past

So how do we attract more qualified teachers to mould our mathematicians of the future?

First and foremost, inspirational teaching can only flourish with a high degree of teacher autonomy and trust.

When I first started teaching, I was able to adapt my approach for each class and each student, based on my assessment of their needs, to build confidence and motivation.

I was free to create and invent opportunities for learning and to be flexible in the delivery of the content.

I communicated with my colleagues and shared ideas and resources, but I ran my own show.

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This teaching utopia has long since evaporated.

Superficially the classroom still looks the same, but there are now invisible fetters and shackles restricting a teacher's every move.

'One-size-fits-all' is not the solution

Most teachers do not run their own assessment regimes.

Due to perceived compliance requirements to maintain equity and fairness across all classes in a cohort, most assessment is written and marked collectively.

This results in a "one-size-fits-all" test which is not tailored to the developmental and motivational needs of any individual student or class.

The assessment dates are usually fixed long in advance, before teachers even know what it is that will be assessed. This is the tail wagging the dog.

The results of these assessments have a disastrous effect on student confidence, with many students achieving crushingly low scores and losing all confidence in their ability to learn mathematics.

Teachers typically do not mark their own students' assessments but rather, mark a single question across the cohort.

This leads to a lack of vital feedback for teachers about their own students' understanding.

Teachers have become 'automatons'

Teachers are also now discouraged from developing relationships with students.

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In recent years, the climate in schools has been damagingly affected by the burgeoning concern to protect children from abuse.

Teachers are warned about getting "too close" to students and what is intended as a "professional distance" to protect teachers from accusations, can sometimes be interpreted by students as a lack of interest in them.

Moreover, there has been a systemic and insidious depersonalisation of teaching, seeking to replace the persona and charisma of the teacher with the blandness and uniformity of a facilitator of learning, in the mistaken belief that this will result in more consistent and better learning outcomes.

Teachers are no longer encouraged to be creative and performing artists, but rather automatons who paint by numbers.

The dehumanisation of teaching can be epitomised by teachers not being allowed to use "I" or "me" within their school reports in many schools.

The rationale is that the report is about the student, not the teacher, but the reality is that the report is the teacher's opinion of the student and it is most effective if the student can clearly hear the teacher's voice, rather than a generic, insipid comment.

There's no silver bullet

To put mathematics at the forefront going forward, we must give teachers back more classroom autonomy, trust and opportunities to be creative and responsible for their classes.

Compliance and regulation need to be reined in to improve genuine quality teaching and learning.

We need to give teachers the environment they need to be able to thrive, and we need to recognise and encourage the importance of teachers' individual personality and character in inspiring the next generation of students.

There is no silver bullet to the crisis in mathematics education, but tightening up compliance regulations and forcing all students to study mathematics will certainly make matters a whole lot worse.

Robin Nagy has taught high school mathematics in three continents and has been a Professional Learning Consultant for the Mathematical Association of NSW, in which capacity he ran courses for over 1,000 mathematics teachers across NSW.

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