Monday, 13 February 2012 16:55

Maths Crisis: Experts Call for Improved Education

EITHER we skill up to teach mathematics effectively at high school or produce generations of Australians who are ill-equipped for the modern economy and top jobs, Nobel prize winner Brian Schmidt has warned.

The Australian National University astrophysicist delivered the blunt assessment ahead of his address at Maths for the Future forum run by the Australian Mathematical Science Institute.

Professor Schmidt said it was dangerous for Australia to undervalue maths as it provided ''the foundation for most skilled professions, whether you are a builder, an astronomer or an economist.''

"If you get left behind at high school, nothing we do at university will save you; it's just not going to happen," Professor Schmidt said. "To do a highly skilled job you need maths. We need to formulate a plan for reversing alarming shortages in maths, statistics and engineering enrolments at universities.”

Earlier, Chief Scientist Ian Chubb said: "This is a national issue. It's not insurmountable but it will take a lot of hard work . . . the better we do it now, the better this future will be. The real issue is why maths learning is in decline, and what we can do about that. It is about making mathematics more relevant.”

Professor Schmidt said the decline in maths learning in Australia would soon lead to shortages across a range of professions, from engineers and scientists, to public policy workers lacking numerical literacy. Sound maths knowledge is also required for every day skills such as ''balancing your cheque book or interpreting facts and figures in the media''.

"Not everyone needs calculus, but everyone needs a certain level of proficiency," Schmidt said. So it is important to "make sure the skill set of the teachers at primary level is there and, if not, we need to train them up, primary teachers needed to be able to pass on basic skills.”

Secondary teaching needs "to be taught by people who are specialists in the curriculum, people who have done a considerable amount of maths at university, such as calculus and algebra. The evidence is that many teachers have that competency, but some do not. And every time we have someone who does not, we lose those classes (of students)."

''In the end I believe it comes down to education, education, education. The earliest years of school are the easiest place to start. Let's ensure our primary school teachers are educated and comfortable in the curriculum, and let's follow it on at the secondary level with teachers well qualified in maths and also trained in teaching techniques.''

The director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, Professor Geoff Prince, said maths and statistical skills were in high demand across all sectors of the economy and many students are unaware that closing the door on mathematics at school would limit their future career options.

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Further Reading

Nobel Winner’s Plea for Maths

Nobel Winner says “Maths Counts”

Mathematics Experiencing 'Identity Crisis'

How to make Maths Cool