There has been significant recent press coverage given to the decline in the number of students taking advanced maths or science subjects both in the later years of secondary schooling and at university. For instance, the 2013 report by the Australian Industry Group ‘Lifting our Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths Skills’ states that the number of students enrolled in a mathematics major in Australian universities declined by 15% between 2001 and 2007, whilst in ICT, it is even worse, with a 53% decline in commencements between 2001 and 2011. The number of engineering graduates currently provides only 40% of employers’ needs. Of course, the problem starts in high school, where the numbers taking advanced mathematics courses has declined by 27% between 1995 and 2007, a decline which is even greater for girls.
This has been identified as a major concern for Australia’s economic well-being and our capacity to compete in a world increasingly reliant on computational and algorithmic thinking. It is not all bad news. At the top level, in the highly competitive International Olympiads, Australia performs consistently well, finishing 11th out of 100 competing nations in the 2014 IMO (international Maths Olympiad) and producing the top student (equal with a student from China and another from Taiwan). In Informatics, we also produced the top student (equal with one from China and one from the US) and the team finished an amazing 3rd out of 80 competing nations. Similar achievements in almost any sport would have received blanket media exposure! These results, however, are against the trend and, in all likelihood, these highly gifted students will be lured overseas because of Australia’s lack of competitiveness in industry and academia.
A simple solution has been posited. Make the study of mathematics compulsory to Year 12. Unfortunately, this solution, attractive though it sounds, masks the real problem. Students are disengaged with mathematics as currently taught. This is not surprising, because 40% of high school maths teachers are not fully qualified to teach mathematics (which means that, with the buying power of wealthy schools, the problem is far worse in socio-economically deprived areas, where in many schools there is not a single qualified maths teacher on the staff). Forced participation will simply exacerbate the problem of teacher shortage, so we need to look at this a little more deeply.
The mathematical requirements to become a primary teacher are often pitifully poor, and we have many primary teachers, perfectly able in other respects, whose confidence in teaching mathematics is very low. Not surprisingly, they and their underqualified secondary colleagues, take the easiest approach and teach ‘from the book’ without engaging students in what mathematics is really all about, which is the formulation and solution of problems.
As a first step, we need to support these teachers, putting money and resources into professional development to build their capacity to teach in an engaging way, opening up students’ minds to the power and the possibilities of mathematics. This is a primary purpose of the Australian Mathematics Trust, which provides competitions and resources, as well as teacher and student workshops, aimed at supporting a problem-oriented approach to mathematics teaching.
Secondly, and even more importantly in the long term, the teaching profession (and mathematics teaching in particular) shares the problem of other industries in the paucity of qualified graduates and this can only be addressed by a concerted effort to raise the status of the profession. Sadly, in Australia, the lure of Medicine and Law is so great that any student with a high ATAR score is questioned by parents, careers advisors (and even teachers) should they express an interest in teaching. Why would you waste your talent?
This is a fundamental question which we need to address. We will get the education we deserve as a nation, depending on how we value our teachers. If we cannot change this mindset, any other initiatives will just be papering over the cracks.
In the UK, there has been a recent upsurge in the numbers taking maths and science, and this has been dubbed ‘the Brian Cox effect’. What is happening is that the cause is being championed by somebody who has strong media appeal. If this effect is sustained, it will increase the number of graduates, make pathways (including teaching) seem more attractive and possibly break what is currently a vicious cycle to decline. Hopefully, Australia can learn from this. Let us celebrate our champions (and we do have plenty of these) and help our students to appreciate the enormous diversity of STEM pathways.
Executive director – Australian Mathematics Trust