The critical importance of mathematics and numeracy to the skills agenda
by Dr. Richard Evans, www.technicaleducationmatters.org
One of the critical elements in tackling the major and continuing challenges to improving skills is the persistent problems associated with mathematical capability. The persistent levels of innumeracy and functional innumeracy also create problems for many adults who wish to enter employment. These problems have been highlighted over many decades by countless commissions, reports and research papers. A multitude of causes have been identified including:
- Low levels of motivation
- Bad previous teaching experiences
- The perception that mathematics is intrinsically difficult
- The impact of negative parental, societal and cultural attitudes
As a result, many government initiatives have been tried with little positive or lasting effect. Any paucity in mathematical and numerical capability, whether in work or general life, impacts negatively on attempts to elevate the overall skills level and thus cannot be over-emphasised. Weakness in these critical areas seriously impedes attempts to increase participation in vocational education and training, and also impedes increases to the skills levels in subjects that require mathematical or numerical capability and competence.
Issues with curriculum and pedagogy
The array of initiatives that have been introduced to tackle the problem of mathematics teaching and participation in the subject, particularly post-16, have sadly failed as they were either not properly resourced, were of too short a duration or were not fully evaluated. 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. Other evidence shows the problems are systemic: for instance, recent SATs results have shown the first decline in pass rates in English and Mathematics since the tests were introduced. It has been estimated that 35,000 primary school pupils will enter secondary school unable to read, write or carry out the most basic numerical operations.
Making mathematics appealing to learners
The teaching of mathematics and numeracy presents additional challenges to both teachers and learners because of the reluctance and, at times, hostility of learners towards these subjects. The perception that the subject is difficult and presents a scary experience for learners adds to the problem. Although a number of commentators disagree, I believe this hostility is cultural and as such represents a major challenge in tackling the general problem of increasing mathematical capability.
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.
Relevance is a critical factor. All learners must value 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 a 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
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.
Using mathematics to refocus the economy
Unless the government and its quangos are clear about what new industries and technologies it is going to prioritise to update and re-focus the economy, and how mathematics fits into the picture, there will not be a renewed "jobs focus" on the importance of mathematics. This kind of strong message is needed to get public attention focused on the importance of mathematics, which should then feed into focussing on improving mathematics teaching and encouraging student uptake of mathematics and mathematics-related subjects. With these improvements, we will see improved attainment and application of these subjects in jobs, and a positive effect on the economy. This imperative is even more important with the development of the vocational diplomas.
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.