Time for a Re-Think.

With concerns over society’s numeracy levels and the advent of new technology, Dick Evans calls for a major, wide-ranging inquiry into maths education.

Recently, a number of reports have highlighted the continuing concern about mathematics education and the problems associated with the level of numeracy in school leavers and in members of society in general. Ongoing concern is voiced by employers and educationalists from all the sectors.

Many reports, over many decades, have mapped out the possible causes and made innumerable recommendations to improve the situation. Sadly, in spite of all these laudable endeavours, nothing has happened and the concerns continue about the inadequacy of mathematical and numerical abilities of college/university applicants and employees.

It is but one of the eternal concerns about this country’s educational tradition, mirroring and possibly linked with the cultural hostility to vocational education and certain strategically important disciplines, namely science, engineering, manufacturing and technology.I fear this problem will persist well into the future!

One of the difficulties has been that the majority of the reports approach the problem from one direction only, with all the inevitable self-interest and parochial associations. For example, one report “Tackling the Mathematics Problem”, was from the university perspective, whilst another. “Mathematics Matters in Engineering”, focused on that discipline from a higher education perspective. The problems are far wider and embrace all learners and individuals who will have to live in an increasingly scientific and technological society, dominated by the information technology revolution.

One issue that needs to be seriously analyzed is the impact of information technology and the dominance of computers in our lives. What knowledge and understanding do people need to have to cope with computers and associated technologies? There could, after all, be a real danger of ‘rubbish in and gospel out’. However, there is now evidence emerging that learning technologies associated with computers can be greatly beneficial to learners, particularly in the areas of mathematics and numeracy. Recent research from the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) has shown distinct benefits to learners. The increasing development of CD-ROMs and other forms of electronic technology could, if managed and resourced properly, bring about significant improvements in the level of understanding of learners at all stages of their life.

There must now be a fundamental review of the way teaching and learning is conducted in mathematics education, especially with the advent of the new learning technologies. Traditional methods have failed in this important area of study. The newer, more learner-centred approaches should be adopted, supported by qualified staff and the associated IT software and hardware. This should most certainly be coupled with an enhanced and on-going campaign building upon the excellent ealier work of many skills agencies. The mass media, too, has a role to play in helping people to appreciate the importance of numeracy and mathematics within society, working in close collaboration with the national basic skills organizations such as The Basic Skills Agency (BSA).

What is surely needed now is a far-ranging and well-informed national inquiry into this whole area of mathematics and numeracy. Any such group must have a truly representative mem bership of all the key players, including educationalists from all the sectors, and members from other groups who are tackling more basic numerical skill problems. This representation will overcome the dangers of a more parochial view or narrow perspective. What we do not need is either a bottom-down or a bottom-up view of the problems, but a truly representative group, looking at all the issues associated with this very important matter. Perhaps the Royal Society could take the initiative, building on its previous work with such study groups as Beyond GCSE and Higher Education Futures (Royal Society Working Party publications), which sought a wide-ranging investigation with a wide membership representation.

(Dick Evans is principal of Stockport College)

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