The Mathematics Problem


The teaching of mathematics and numeracy, at all levels of education, is one cause of concern in many countries in Europe, and Malta is no exception. The problems precipitate a series of worrying issues namely:

  • A generally negative perception of these subjects amongst learners in school, college and university.
  • Low participation levels post 16 in subjects that require a fair degree of mathematical capability e.g. construction/engineering, physical sciences and practical trades.
  • Continuing concerns expressed by college and university admission and subject tutors about the poor mathematical attainment levels of student applicants.
  • Low progression rates to higher education programmes that require mathematics.
  • Shortages of suitably qualified teachers in mathematical and scientific disciplines at all levels of the education and training system.

In these two articles I would like to explore some of the issues associated with this subject in general terms but feel that many are relevant to Malta as various curriculum reforms get underway. Capability in these subjects is critically important in many occupations that will ultimately determine the economic health of any country. Numerical capability is also essential for all citizens who live in an increasingly scientific and technological world.

Research has continually highlighted the inevitable consequences of the fundamental problems associated with the teaching of mathematics and numeracy. Many institutions now have to offer bridging and remediation programmes for entrants to tackle the deficiencies in mathematical understanding, knowledge and competence.

Annual surveys from the EU show that problems persist with levels of numeracy at best remaining constant in some countries whilst in others showing a decline. Because of the strategic importance of mathematics and numerical capability in most occupations, urgent action is required. Time and resources are needed to reverse the downward spiral in many countries and will not be arrested by the usual platitudes, empty rhetoric and short term initiatives.

Graduation levels in these subjects from schools, colleges and universities in countries like India, China and South Korea are soaring where they are seen as being important and critical at all stages of education. Mathematics is a pivotal subject both in its own right but also as an essential part in the teaching of many other subjects e.g. physics, chemistry and engineering.

Possible causes and effects of these persistent problems could include:

  • Cultural factors I believe this is a key factor.
  • The way mathematics and numeracy programmes are taught.
  • The obsession with testing and assessment regimes in many countries results in distortion of the teaching process, that leads to a lack of understanding in the subjects.
  • The increasing use of computers, calculators and ICT multi-media in peoples lives seems to create a degree of passivity or acceptance in the way people want to or indeed expect to learn.

Could these technologies actually erode the crucial element of curiosity so essential in the learning and understanding of mathematics?

Can it just be a cultural issue or have the current educational practices brought about a change in attitude and general perception of the subject?

Today, encountering numerical information and data, which is the basic element of mathematics, is inevitable e.g. the ability to count, perform simple measurements, tell the time, manage personal finances and recognise shapes are essential to cope with life. From birth, people possess a natural curiosity and latent ability to quickly appreciate basic concepts such as shape, relationships between objects and number. Moreover provided that they are in an encouraging environment, people can develop the foundations for later competence and capability in mathematics.

Then they enter formal education i.e. the primary stage and for many of us it seems as if the batteries that energise learning mathematics are taken out. Whether it is poor teaching or an uninspiring and unchallenging curriculum, many soon lose their natural curiosity and excitement for the subject. The situation gets worse at the secondary stage when pupils often learn mathematical concepts, techniques and formulae without needing to understand their purpose or use in the real world. However, it is not all the teachers’ fault. After all, it is the government and its agencies that prescribe the subject specifications and resultant syllabuses. Syllabuses and teaching are now heavily prescribed and this most certainly dampens the teachers’ and learners’ enthusiasm towards the subject, which does not encourage and sustain the essential ingredient of inquisitiveness that is so important to the subject.

My final point will no doubt prove controversial to some, but it is meant to provoke further debate. The advent of new technologies has brought many advantages but also a number of possible negatives. Information can be obtained almost instantly and very often in a high quality presentation format. This can engender a passivity in the learner where one’s own personal curiosity and exploratory skills are replaced by the ‘black box’ and its assertive technology. Learning this way often dictates an unquestioning acceptance that the program must be right and too often does not challenge the learner to be divergent or creative. Learning consists of two elements retrieving the relevant information and then the most important part analysing, validating and reflecting on the information retrieved. The internet, if managed correctly is effective on the first count BUT there is a real danger that the critical second stage is marginalised.

A number of commentators have said that the internet could bring about the outsourcing of one’s memory! So perhaps the reluctant attitude to mathematics is an amalgam of factors, cultural as well as issues within the educational system.

Dr. Richard Evans is a Council Member and Fellow of the City & Guilds.

[Part 2 of This Article]

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