The Mathematics Problem [Part 2]

DR RICHARD EVANS CONTINUES TO EXPLORE THE DIFFERENT FACTORS THAT CAN CAUSE DIFFICULTY WHEN IT COMES TO UTILISING MATHEMATICAL KNOWLEDGE AND SKILLS WITHIN THE WORK ENVIRONMENT. IN THE SECOND PART OF THIS FEATURE, THE FACILITATION OF TEACHING AND LEARNING THROUGH THE EDUCATIONAL ENVIRONMENT IS DISCUSSED.

In (part one of this article](/2011/04/the-mathematics-problem) (published in the April/May 2011 issue), I identified some of the problems related to mathematics and numeracy in our education system. However, perhaps it is too simplistic just to view the negative perception towards the subject in terms of a series of causes and effects.

If the problem is about the formation of negative attitudes towards the subject, then this must be recognised as a complex process that invariably involves the interaction of a number of factors that ultimately cannot be simply or completely identified and explained. It might be more productive to think in terms of what factors are the problem related to instead of what causes the problem? In other words it is about the subtle and complex interactions that occur between the contributing factors rather than a simple causation.

Many of the factors have been well documented over the years and could include:

  • The environment in which teaching and learning takes place;
  • Issues associated with whether or not learning mathematics is perceived as either a pleasurable or painful experience by many learners;
  • The general perception of mathematics particularly the perceptions by peers, parents and society in general towards the subject;
  • Textbooks, which are still narrow and mechanical in format and content;
  • Its lack of perceived obviousness or immediacy so that people do not turn to mathematics as the first resort to solve everyday problems or to understand the world;
  • People claim to survive and earn a living without having to ‘resort’ to mathematics.

Research has shown how important the environment is in the facilitation of effective teaching and learning.

This is particularly important when so much subject choice now exists for learners especially the post-16s. Very often mathematics class rooms are dull and uninspiring when compared with other subject classrooms – with little attempt made to enrich the environment with visual material celebrating and informing learners of the subject.

This reinforces the view that mathematics doesn’t relate to anything else – a bare room is all you need to teach it and learn. Its history and links with other subjects should surely assist the subject to be seen as relevant to the wider world. This factor is linked with the wider issues of whether learners invariably perceive the teaching and learning process as pleasurable or painful. This has been referred to as ‘maths anxiety’. Bad experiences about mathematics create the view in many that it is a subject to be endured, not enjoyed, and dropped as soon as the necessary examinations results have been obtained.

Many attempts have been made to make mathematics teaching and learning more attractive, but these worthy aims, if current evidence is anything to go by, have largely been unrealised in practice. Central to the argument is that the learner must be confident about the subject and again negative teaching and learning experiences will make this more difficult. Inevitably a number of the purists argue that the ‘pleasure principle’ should not be seen as a primary purpose of learning mathematics. However research does show that enjoyment and confidence building are critical elements in the learning process for all subjects.

A recurring theme in this debate is that the subject is seen as difficult, abstract and removed from reality, which has created, what some people refer to as the ‘static image of mathematics’. There is a need to dispel the myth that mathematics is a dry, mechanical tool and celebrate it as a body of living thought connected to and part of other branches of our culture.

Textbooks could also be a contributing factor. A new industry has developed increasingly because of the heavily prescribed curriculum and syllabi. The major examination bodies now commission publishers to write books exclusively for their syllabi. This coupled with a plethora of revision guides again focusing on the specific syllabi creates a narrow and mechanistic view of the subject that stifles the learning process. This narrow approach in current practice must surely weaken an appreciation of mathematics and an understanding of its inherent elegance and dynamism which are so necessary in order to be able to apply it effectively throughout the learners’ studies and beyond into life and work.

The constraints placed on teachers and hence the learners precipitates a number of unfortunate consequences for teachers, learners and most certainly for the ultimate health of the subject. Evidence has shown that a centrally mandated curriculum with its inevitable obsession with over assessment and the resultant heavy prescription further deters learners from a subject like mathematics and most certainly demotivates teachers.

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