It’s the catch-cry frequently heard in mathematics classrooms across the world. From Broome to Byron Bay, Karatha to Kirribilli, usually accompanied (but not limited to) eyes that are threatened to roll out of their sockets, a carefully crafted expression of boredom and superiority, and an air of disdain. As a mathematics teacher it would frustrate me no end: that most irksome expression “Miss, why do I need to know this?” and its loathsome cousin “But when am I ever going to use this?” Yes. Today I’m discussing issues of engagement pertaining to mathematics.

Engaging students is a challenging and often frustrating task for mathematics teachers. Mathematics is practical and tangible, it is functional and useful. Mathematics is a fundamental science, enhancing performance across all other branches of science (see my post on STEM from last week), providing access to further study and underpinning innovation in technology, science, engineering, health, industry and national security. The study of mathematics enhances our capacity for analysis, investigation and problem solving. Mathematics has a unique elegance and beauty. And it can be really fun: there’s nothing like a fist-pump after sweating through a difficult problem, or writing those three most satisfying letters: Q.E.D.

Disengagement isn’t some abstract concept pertaining only to mathematics teachers. Disengagement affects all members of society: either directly or indirectly. Disengagement in mathematics diminishes students’ capacity to understand life through a mathematical perspective. The Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers considers sound skills in numeracy is essential to development of well-informed citizens, and acquisition of skills in data analysis, forecasting and modelling (not of the Miranda Kerr kind).

Students’ levels of engagement are closely tied to academic achievement in all subject areas. Low achievement in numeracy results in decreased educational attainment: a major contributor to decreased student retention to year 12. Just 50% of students who do not complete year 12 are employed, compared to 84% of university graduates. Unemployment is estimated to cost the Australian government over $2.5 billion annually.

A number of factors are often cited as contributing to disengagement in mathematics: irrelevant curricula, inadequate teacher preparation, and pedagogical practices that do not connect with students in a digital age. The nature of mathematics – the sustained effort and deliberation required for success – is at odds with the notion that we are in an ‘instant society.’ Mathematics is considered to be ‘different’ from other subjects: something that one must ‘suffer through.’ It’s cool to hate maths: how often do we see mathematics (and maths teachers) as the butt of jokes in the society?

A 2006 report prepared for the Australian Council of Deans of Science investigated the preparation of mathematics teachers in Australia. The report found that 64% of mathematics teachers had studied mathematics to at least third year level at university, and one in five had not studied mathematics beyond first year. Alarmingly, teachers under the age of 30 were most likely not to have majored in mathematics at university: over 60% of mathematics teachers aged 20-24 (compared to around 30% for teachers aged over 35).

Accompanying the reduced rate of young teachers who have majored in mathematics at university is a reduction in the proportion of students studying high-level mathematics. Between 1995 and 2007 there was a 20% decrease in students studying advanced mathematics courses (from 25,000 to 20,000). Consequently, we find ourselves in a ‘dog-chasing-its tail’ scenario: fewer students studying higher level mathematics at school means fewer teachers majoring at mathematics in university. Without adequate rates and levels of teacher preparation it is difficult to improve the number of students studying mathematics, and so the cycle continues. Junior secondary years are crucial to the development of students’ proficiency in mathematics: laying the foundations for years to come. Yet it is the junior years that are most commonly taught by inexperienced, less qualified mathematics teachers, further perpetuating the decline in engagement in high-level mathematics. Quality, engaged and suitably qualified mathematics teachers are essential if this decline is to cease. However, with just 0.4% of Australian graduates majoring in mathematics (compared to the OECD average of 1%) it is difficult to see any end in sight.

Teachers have a profound impact on students’ levels of engagement. It is lazy, to an extent, to blame external factors for students’ disengagement in mathematics: curricula, society, even tertiary preparation our outside our control once we step into the classroom. What we can control is our own attitude and our own self-efficacy. What we can work to improve is our students’ attitudes and self-efficacy. In doing so students may learn to appreciate the joys and the skills associated with expertise in mathematics. They may understand that maths is about more than rote learning a formula, or gaining proficiency in proofs: learning mathematics involves learning how to think. Through mathematics we become more adept problem solvers, we are challenged to address problems from multiple perspectives, to communicate precisely and logically. As teachers of mathematics we are required to use these very skills to engage students – their futures depend on it.

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