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Maths teaching takes a hammering again

Discussion in 'Mathematics' started by pencho, Jul 24, 2012.

  1. pencho

    pencho New commenter

    Very critical report of maths in schools appears to be out today. Article in telegraph. Here are some of the headlines
    Standards in schools have slipped so low that GCSE maths now amounts to little more than "glorified numeracy" while even those with top grades at A-level are woefully ill-equipped to study maths and science at university.
    A combination of the "modular" A-level system, which allows pupils to bypass certain fields such as calculus.... (Really - is this actually possible!!!!!)Some seventy per cent of first-year undergraduates studying biology, 38 per cent reading chemistry and economics and 20 per cent on engineering courses in 2009 had not completed an A level in maths. (No wonder they struggle with the maths they are required to do if they haven't done A-level maths. Surely it would be easier to make maths compulsory if you do these subjects at Uni)"Part of [the problem] is the modulisation of A level, whereby there is no interlinking between the different elements of maths, but it is also because there is a race to the bottom at A-level by exam boards competing with each other about the ease with which students can achieve their grades."
    (Is this really a massive problem at A-level. Granted GCSE has issues, but not sure how much more can feasibly be covered in the time given)Professor Sir Christopher Snowden, vice-chancellor of Surrey University, added: "I think that in pretty much every university the issues over maths skills apply.
    "This has been an issue now for many years within universities, partly due to the increase in the breadth of maths that is studied at schools but with a lack of depth. In some cases, for example, there is a complete absence of calculus, which is an issue in many subjects." (I'm sorry but where does Mr Snowden get his comments from. Where can a student student study A-level maths and not do calculus. Am I missing something!!!!Those wishing to study science, engineering or maths at university should be required to take a maths A-level, while those focusing on humanities subjects like English or classics should still study the subject to AS level, the committee said. (We need a new qualfication. Everyone is not and will not be capable of even AS-level maths. I fear standards would really slip if everyone had to do AS maths. It also assumes that everyone knows that they if they want to go to Uni in Y12/Y13 and what they want to study).
    University professors again saying they are not happy and getting themselved heard. Maybe it's time school teachers criticised the way students were taught at University. It also worries me where we are actually going to get all these extra maths teachers from.

  2. PaulDG

    PaulDG Occasional commenter

    I've been over and commented on the article, I suggest everyone does the same!

    No. Calculus is in Core - which is compulsory.

    I agree!

    The only bad thing about teaching Y12s is that many of them shouldn't be on the course in the first place and you need the support of SLT (at some schools, very supportive, at others certainly not!) in getting kids removed from it!

    Make it compulsory and the only way the system could cope would be to dumb it all down.
  3. davidmu

    davidmu Occasional commenter

    Perhaps some common sense will prevail. Although my daughter benefitted from the modular system I think this has had a significant impact on the lowering of standards. For the vast majority of science,mathematics and engineering students at the "traditional" universities, courses at "A" level need to revert to the syllabi that existed 30 years ago. I do not believe that "decision maths" or "statistics" really are suitable alternatives to solid pure mathematics and mechanics. The former are almost certainly better if they are taught at tertiary level to those who need it.
  4. PaulDG

    PaulDG Occasional commenter

    Most (though not all) schools use Decision Maths as one of the Further Maths options - yes, it's an easy course, but the point is it covers a lot of "interesting" problems that have solutions that are significant for extension in university or provide a foundation for software engineers.

    Pure maths is covered in the Core modules - and "statistics" covers the techniques needed by scientists and engineers in gathering experimental (or manufacturing) data and determining the significance of the results.

    In the hunt for the Higgs particle, the final judgement isn't from the mechanics of the observed particle and its decay - it's from the statistical analysis that assigns a low probability (via a significance test) that the observed particle is anything but a Higgs.
  5. I couldn't have put it better myself! Totally agreed, however, why is D1 easier than M1 an S1? It doesn't have to be - introduce more theory of algortihms, such as big Oh notation, to add more rigour.

  6. PaulDG

    PaulDG Occasional commenter

    I think it's about time. Teaching time, that is.

    It's easy, but it still takes the full allocated time to get through all of the algorithms.

    Oh, and on a different tack, I realised while making myself a coffee, that option modules were decided differently when I did my A levels. (There were still options, they were tested differently as the exam had a "choose 2 from 5" section at the end).

    Those doing A level Physics did more mechanics; those doing biology, more statistics.

    Nowadays, we don't generally offer that level of "individualisation" (despite there being far more lip service to it) and schools choose the modules for the entire cohort, not on the basis of what is the best fit for the child.
  7. Yet another call for the IB to take over from A level.
    The only thing stopping it in the UK?
    The Government realising that the UK would not be ranked in the 20's for world education but further down and the gulf could be quantified.
  8. hammie

    hammie Lead commenter

    has the decision to make everyone study all three sciences at GCSE made the situation worse? It did seem that a lot of those who opted for Physics then made the logical step to extra Maths, now the same students often find biology boring whereas the biologists often struggle with the maths required for the physics ??
    there used to be a gender issue, which probably would be less of a problem now?
  9. DM

    DM New commenter

  10. DM

    DM New commenter

    Duplicate post.
  11. Thanks for the light reading DM [​IMG]
    I have only managed to skim through some of it at the moment but there seems to quite a gulf between what is in the report and the reporting of it in the newspapers. I think that there should be a separate comprehension qualification as a pre-requisite for journalism degrees, it may improve the quality of articles.
    Some of the comments in the DT article are unbelievable. People claiming to have done the SMP A level in the 70s and not coming across calculus. I have the textbooks from when I did it in the 80s and they are very traditional in style and contain a lot of calculus.
    I noted your comments on there PaulDG [​IMG]

  12. I can hardly believe I read that comment! The point in para 34 of the report is crystal clear. Universities are having to provide remedial maths classes to undergraduates arriving to read STEM subjects. Not just to those without A-level maths, but - crucially - to some of those with good maths A-level passes. It beggars belief that the OP wants to blame the professors for this.

    I am well aware of the veracity of these professors' complaints. My two sons both reported that about a third of their respective intakes had to undertake remedial maths classes - and that despite all having glittering A-level passes in maths.

    My own view is that the problem's root cause is to be found well before A-level or even GCSE - in KS1 and KS2!
  13. PaulDG

    PaulDG Occasional commenter

    As I believe I wrote on the Telegraph comments, there is a massive lack of "simple" numeracy which comes in part from our schizophrenic view of the use of calculators but mostly from the pressure on Primary schools to get "up the levels".

    There are simply not enough marks in KS2, GCSE or A level exams to make it worth any teacher's time (bear in mind not meeting target grades is a cause for capability proceedings these days) to risk not scraping a few easy marks on "higher level" topics by spending the years necessary to bed down that numeracy.

    That numeracy underpins everything we do in Secondary (as does literacy though that's not such an issue at A level as candidates with poor literacy generally don't attempt A levels) and we simply do not / can not spend time on it.

    Numeracy was never tested in O level, it was simply assumed candidates for O level would have it, so it hasn't been "lost" from GCSE.

    It's been lost much earlier than that.
  14. The fact is that, as school teachers, we are obligated to teach the curriculum as dictated to us by politicians.
    At secondary school we take students with their knowledge and skills base gained at primary (where our colleagues equally have to teach the national curriculum dictated to them by politicians) and teach them the secondary school national curriculum for maths.
    Yes, if we manage to shuffle the cards particularly cleverly we might find a few hours here or there to do something different and 'outside of the box' but those opportunities are limited due to time constraints.
    When the Primary curriculum changes or the secondary curriculum changes we have had to amend our teaching accorindingly. Have the universities changed their curricula to take into account the changes that we have been forced into or have they made no allowances for these changes to their intake?
    If my students don't do very well is it OK just to blame the primary teachers or should I reflect upon the way I am teaching the students? Am I tailoring my teaching to build on their actual starting points or just starting from where I believe they should be and not where they actually are?
    I wonder how many Uni professors have actually looked at an A level syllabus recently to inform their planning? Clearly not the guy from Surrey who seems to have dreamed up an A level Maths course without any calculus to try and make a point.
    I'm not sat here thinking all is rosey in the field of maths education - it clearly isn't and at ACME conferences there are any number of people willing to state this loud and clear if the politicos would bother to listen - but the 'guilty parties' for this 'gap' between A levels and degrees are the collective policians who are so quick to throw blame around.
    We hear things like "students are much weaker at maths now than 30 years ago" or "A levels are easier now than 30 years ago" without any acknowledgement that the time spent on teaching maths at KS4 has fallen significantly over that time (with obvious need to reduce content) due to changes to the NC that saw a whole host of subjects made compulsory for a while.
    In the mid 1980's I had 4.5 or even 5 hours of maths a week. Now I've seen schools down as far as 2.5 hours a week (we have 3 hours a week). How can halfing the time spent teaching a subject not result in a lower level of knowledge? Of course A levels had to change to reflect this - and degrees should too if "A level maths" is set as the entry criteria for a course.
    Now if Uni's want a greater level of mathematical knowledge then they have complete control over that - it's called putting A level Further Maths as part of their entry criteria.
    It's quite a simple sum really -
    Short term the Uni's need to get their house in order and either change their entry criteria to get students with the skills they need (whether that be making A level maths compulsory for engineering courses and the like and further maths for a maths degree) or adjust their courses to reflect the skills that students have on intake.
    Longer term the politicians need to get as far away from curriculum development as humanly possible and leave it to professional educators to fight over and agree a suitable curriculum for all levels of education.

  15. I think forcing unmotivated pupils to continue with a subject that they are disinterested in is flawed. Maths requires significant motivation, determination and perseverance in order to succeed. It should not be compulsory in any way or form. On the other hand, numeracy is more of a life skill, and should include personal finance for all. The pupils that will be forced to "do Maths" will continue to disrupt teaching of those that are willing to work at it. The poor pupils who thought that they had got rid of some of the disruptors in class, will be devastated by this nonsense.
  16. David - I'm not sure that doing this overnight is plausible - the gap between GCSE and your 'new' A level would be huge (worse than the C2K maths A level fiasco which saw maths A level applications fall through the floor).
    Do you propose that we, also, return to a secondary school curriculum that is similar to the old O-level that then led onto the old A-level?
    How would this new course meet the needs of those weaker (mathematically) students who previously didn't do O level?
    If we do bring back an O-level type course (even for just some students) we run into the problem that maths teaching time at school has shrunk significantly in that time to make space for various reasons out of the control of schools (for example I did 1 hour of PE a week in year 10 and 11 whereas now we are expected to do 2 or more to help stop the obesity problem engulfing our country).
    I did 30 mins per week of personal development, drugs etc. at school whereas now we are expected to do so much more to try and do some of the job of 'parenting' - it's 1 hour a week at my current school but I know some schools do more due to the percieved needs of their cohorts..
    I did 8 subjects (and many of my peers did 7) yet now schools are judged on the 'best 8 results for a student' forcing schools to do a minimum of 8 subjects and often more (as a result of the days when doing an MFL was compulsory ditto a DT subject and so on many schools now do 10 or more).
    I'm open to persuasion of a return to doing more maths at KS4 (and hence ramping up A level etc.) but it does come at a cost of things that we've been expected to take on by governement.
    How would you see a typical 25 hours week of study panning out for a <u>typical</u> student?
    [As an aside Statistics played an equal part to Mechanics in my "Pure and Applied" A level Maths and Further Maths studies around 20 years ago. Pure and Applied was the most common maths A level compared to Pure, Pure & Mechanics; Pure & Stats or just Stats. Not sure whether a 'turn back the clock' 30 years would have the impact of removing the study of statistics or not.]
  17. pencho

    pencho New commenter

    Who qualifies for the remedial classes? What is a good A-level pass? Why are some students with good A0level passes okay, others are not. I;m going to make a sweeping statement here. Maybe its because university lecturers don;t have the time or inclination to invest in the students they teach.
    For example, two students who got an A. One student can just do it, is gifted at maths. Another students who works hard, has got a good teacher, he asks questions and works through as many questions as he can. I think the second will struggle at University, because I don't think they get the same guidance as you could argue he is not a stronger natural mathematician.
    I also think lecturers are at the top of their game and they don't appreciate that some students just don't immediatley get things and then they get frustrated with students who they believe 'just don;t get it'. It is too easy to give up on students and claim they are not up to it.
    I really hope the fees make lecturers step up their game to be honest. They give us enough flak, time for them to be on the receiving end. They seem to be untouchable.

  18. I spent some years doing postgrad work at a Russell Group University in the mid 1990's. To earn some extra cash I was involved in some remedial classes then (so these are not a new thing) -students came from various engineering and maths with engineering type courses with a range of post-16 experiences (from getting lower grades at A level through to top grade students). We also did some work inexamples classes that went with some of the lecture courses.
    The key was that some lecturers really cared about the quality of their teaching and their students - their door was always open and they genuinely offered advice and support in 'examples classes and were keen to know about student difficulties.
    For some other lecturers teaching students was a pain that they had to put up with in order to do their research. Their apporach was to turn up, deliver a lecture and that was job done. They never attended their own examples classes and just left it to the post-grads to do. They never sought our feedback on the areas that students were stuggling with so that they could ammend follow-up lectures accordingly.
    Now that was pushing 20 years ago and things may have changed but for every dilligent lecturer there was another who didn't actually want to any teaching and it showed.
  19. davidmu

    davidmu Occasional commenter

    I read and understand other points of view but we need to face the fact that we are turning out so few competent graduate engineers. This is not a problem in Germany where the education system is much more rigid. My son, who is a very well qualified engineer, (I will leave it at that), works for a company that is desparately short of engineers, indeed they have over 20 vacancies for graduate staff and have been in this position for months. How is this country going to succeed if we do not attempt to put things right?
  20. googolplex

    googolplex Occasional commenter

    The problems with A-levels are many and varied. In addition to what's already been stated, the progression through GCSE and A-level is fundamentally flawed. GCSE does nothing to encourage more able students since it rewards the mediocre and ignores high-grade topics. There is then too big a jump between the two qualifications. GCSEs need to include much more by way of bridge topics between the two qualifications. A-levels should not stoop any lower in order to facilitate this process.
    Then, there is this ridiculous assumption that anyone who gets an A at GCSE should, almost by right, progress to an A grade at A-level. Furthermore, unless you get your A or B, the qualification has little currency. When I took A-levels in the early 1980s, any grade at A-level had currency. Ds were perfectly acceptable for those wanting to progress onto degree courses at some of the less-prestigious institutions. And plenty of students with A grade O-levels attained such grades at A-level. Plenty of others failed altogether - which less acceptable.
    There is nothing wrong with the breadth offered at A-level. I think it is important that students study both stats and mechanics. Decision should only be a Further Maths option and it, too, needs more rigour at the top end. Core maths needs to harden-up its top end, perhaps by presenting some much more challenging problems in exams - the ability to get into these problems should be the thing that gives students access to A grades.
    Perhaps the grading thing itself needs to be looked at - a much more sophisticated system of grading, not based on percentage outcomes but on the difficulty of questions which students attempt. Papers in, say, three sections with choice as to where students begin to pit their wits. In section A, easier questions - fine if you want to aim for grades DE. Section B with more rigour - ok to access B & C. Then section A which is the real challenge and success at which will only give access to A grade.
    And let's, for everyone's sake, get rid of these pathetic A*s....

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