Among the critical and pivotal elements in tackling the major and continuing challenges to improve skills and increase productivity, are the persistent problems associated in mathematical capability. Low levels of numeracy and functional numeracy including among adults who wish to enter employment continue to be a problem. These problems have been highlighted over many decades by innumerable commissions, reports and research papers. A multitude of causes have been identified including:
• Gender issues
• Low levels of motivation
• Bad previous learning/teaching experiences
• The perception amongst learners that mathematics is intrinsically difficult
• The impact of negative parental, societal and cultural attitudes.
Although many government initiatives have been tried, little positive and lasting effect has resulted. Any paucity in mathematical and numerical capability, whether in work or in life in general, impacts negatively on attempts to elevate the overall skills level and this point cannot be over emphasised. Weakness in these critical areas seriously impedes attempts to increase participation in vocational and technical education and training and improvements in the skills levels in subjects that require mathematical or numerical capability and competence. Lecturers in FE have to confront these weaknesses which distract them from their teaching and instruction priorities. They must also continue to introduce realistic and relevant compensating programmes.
The current heavily prescribed curriculum in schools and colleges reduces the degree of freedom that teachers can exercise. The testing to test syndrome further restricts the use of innovative and creative methods of teaching and the resultant potential to improve learning in these subjects. Too often pedagogy is side-lined and narrow teaching practices accentuate the problems. Recent evidence shows that the problem is systemic and getting worse.
The teaching of mathematics and numeracy presents additional challenges to both lecturers and learners because of the reluctance and at times hostility of learners towards these subjects. After all lecturers have to teach how the basic mathematical concepts are applied in the work place and if students do not possess that basic knowledge, it presents real challenges and difficulties to the lecturers. The perception that the subject is difficult and presents a scary experience for learners adds to the problem. I believe this hostility is cultural and as such represents a major challenge in tackling the problem.
Therefore fundamental changes are essential if the real world of numeracy, mathematics and mathematical processes are to be made more relevant and available to the learners, especially for subjects that require technical and scientific skills. Plumbing would most certainly benefit from such changes. Also apprenticeship programmes will present additional challenges to colleges and other providers.
Relevance is a critical factor that all learners must value in the subject and be able to really relate it to the specific skills needed in their workplace. The ability to transfer the basic elements of numerical and mathematical skills to specific work tasks is essential as is the learning environment that facilitates that understanding and transferability. A number of approaches have proved to be effective including:
• Realistic working environments (RWEs)
• Simulation e.g. through carefully configured and managed ITC techniques
• Learning in the actual workplace.
The FE sector has a particularly good record in these approaches but would be greatly assisted if they were introduced earlier in schools and in programmes of work experience.
To increase interest in the subject, teaching through the contexts which relate to the specific tasks is critical. Learners must be able to see the relevance of the mathematical skills and their application in real work situations. Lack of appropriate and relevant context can trivialise and oversimplify the subject. Any skills agenda must address and tackle the problems associated with mathematics and include issues about poor teaching and the cultural attitudes to the subject. Unless this is done the current skills agenda will fail as in previous years.
Unless the government is clear about what new industries/technologies it is going to prioritise and support to update /re-focus the economy, there won’t be a re-newed “jobs focus/ work ready” to the importance of mathematics.
That is the kind of message needed to get public attention to the importance of mathematics which should then feed into focussing on improving mathematics teaching, student uptake of mathematics and mathematics related subjects and improved attainment and application of the subjects in jobs and the economy.