Andrew Hanson readily admits he struggled with maths at primary school. He remembers finding the subject daunting and bleak, so now as a primary teacher he easily relates to students who feel the same way when confronted by a sheet of numbers.

"I was very strong in literacy but numeracy was like another language to me for a long time," he says. "I know now when I am helping teachers and students in our school how difficult some students find maths and how frustrating it can be. Kids can also become very detached from maths and get a negative self-image and struggle with it."

These days he's fired with a passion for maths that has grown more intense during two years working with specialist numeracy coaches at Corio South Primary School in Geelong.

Now when he walks into a classroom — and he acknowledges this may be hard to believe — students can't disguise their enthusiasm. "I work in prep, one, two and you walk into a classroom with a lesson for maths and kids start cheering and they are really happy to see you there because they know it's going to be fun and hands-on," he says.

Mr Hanson and another teacher, Shane Ezard, were this year hand-picked to take part in an innovative education department program — the Primary Maths Specialist Trial Project — that aims to help build maths confidence in teachers and students. About 80 teachers from 27 Victorian schools are involved.

Each has received extensive training to support other teachers to build more confidence in teaching maths by offering on-site training and support.

"What we are trying to do is increase teachers' confidence teaching maths and hopefully spread that to the kids to make maths a really exciting, vibrant subject," Mr Hanson says.

"We are seeing kids who might have slipped through the net becoming really confident with maths and learning. There's no better feeling than watching a student come into your group and be a bit sheepish and not sure of themselves and walk out of the room smiling because they've actually nailed it."

As a young, passionate, early-career educator, Mr Hanson is the kind of poster boy that mathematics badly needs. Indeed, Australia's mathematicians are pinning their hopes on inspiring figures like him to turn around their profession's fortunes.

Most agree that mathematics in this country has been in crisis for a long time.

In a recent report commissioned for the Group of Eight universities — the nation's top eight research universities, including Melbourne and Monash — the country's leading maths academics found mathematics education in Australia has deteriorated so much in the past 20 years that standards are now at "dangerously low" levels.

With fewer students taking mathematics at secondary and university level, a chronic shortage of qualified maths teachers and limited graduates entering the profession, there's simply not enough new blood coming through to replace older teachers as they retire.

The decline in the number of year 12 advanced maths students going on to degrees has led to serious skills shortages in areas such as mining, finance, engineering and statistics, with the CSIRO and the Australian Bureau of Statistics expressing "grave" concern about their ability to recruit graduates.

Experts say a series of limited measures, such as halving HECS fees for maths and science graduates, has done little to stem the decline.

They now warn that if Australia continues to slide backwards in maths education and the disciplines it supports, the shortage of workers with high-level mathematics and statistics capabilities could jeopardise the nation's economic and research capability.

"This is a disaster, it is a really big disaster for the kind of society that Australia wants to be," says the president of the Australian Mathematical Society and University of Sydney maths professor, Nalini Joshi. "It is a vicious cycle, it deepens every year and gets worse."

The problem with maths, the Go8 report found, extends all the way through the system from primary schools, where students are rapidly losing interest in maths and science and teachers suffer "mathematics phobia".

Part of the six-point rescue package proposed in the report focused on equipping primary school teachers with more confidence and mathematical skills. It then moved on to the need for remedial maths courses at the tertiary level.

University of Melbourne maths professor Hyam Rubinstein, an adviser on the report, says an action group will look at a number of key issues at university level.

In the long term, he says, universities need to co-operate better with schools to build aspiration around maths and work to connect school maths teaching with university requirements.

Research suggests students form attitudes to maths even before they arrive at high school, with the junior years identified as a critical time to learn basic skills needed for higher levels.

The Go8 report found a positive attitude to maths among students drops by half between years 4 and 8.

Part of the problem, says Professor Rubinstein, is the lack of teachers with university maths training.

He says students can enter some primary teaching courses at university without year 10, 11, or 12 maths.

"If students go into primary teaching without confidence in their mathematical abilities, they communicate this to the students and this puts them off," he says.

But it is in high schools, particularly in junior classes, that maths is more often taught by people with inadequate training. He points to an Australian Council of Deans of Science report that estimates the number of year 10, 11 and 12 teachers who don't have a major in mathematics has increased from 30 to 40 per cent over the past seven years.

Just last week, he joined a group of leading maths academics in a spirited teleconference about how to handle the report's recommendations. One of the issues they lingered over was how to set up better dialogue between mathematics departments and education faculties at universities.

The Go8 action party, he says, is taking the initiative to drive reform rather than waiting for government action.

Australia's maths predicament has drawn international attention. Three years ago, 500 of the world's top academics took the unusual step of signing an open letter to then prime minister John Howard to highlight the perilous path in Australia's maths capability.

Senior signatories included the International Mathematical Union president, Sir John Ball, and the American Mathematical Sciences executive director, John Ewing.

It is a situation Australia's most celebrated home-grown mathematician, Terry Tao of the University of California, keeps a close eye on. Professor Tao, who won the International Mathematical Union's Field Medal in 2007 — the discipline's highest honour — says Australia will continue to lose its brightest and best unless governments show more support for reviving maths.

"Some of the key problems are a shortage of mathematically qualified teachers at the high school level, and a reduction in the outreach and teacher training programs that have traditionally been provided by maths departments at universities," he says.

"There also does not appear to be a full awareness of the career opportunities available to mathematically literate graduate or, conversely, the large range of career options that become limited if one does not have a sufficient background in maths, stats, or quantitative reasoning."

This point is not lost on Professor Geoff Prince, director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, whose organisation is working to tackle the crisis. "Maths really has an identity problem, as most students and parents in year 10 have no clue what careers are available for people in maths . . . companies don't call their mathematicians that, they are usually called the financial analysts or other things," he says.

High-level mathematical capacity, he says, is behind everything from forecasting weather to hospital CAT scans and working out what's going to happen to an oil spill off Western Australia.

For that reason, he says, Australian can no longer ignore the state of mathematical sciences. Once a leader in maths, it now lags behind England and the US and is heavily outperformed by most Asian countries.

The institute last year received a $2 million federal grant to extend its International Centre of Excellence for Education in Mathematics program (ICE-EM), which started in Illawarra, in New South Wales, to help students gain a clearer understanding of mathematical ideas and concepts. Textbooks, teacher resources and ongoing support via school visits are crucial to the program, which now includes a cluster of schools in Geelong and Gippsland.

One upshot of the crisis is that many schools have simply given up teaching advanced maths. Professor Max King, Monash University's pro-vice-chancellor for research and research training, says this is partly due to secondary students dropping the subject to try to maximise their tertiary entrance scores.

The number of students studying advanced maths at secondary level dropped by 27 per cent between 1995 and 2007, forcing universities to offer costly catch-up classes to help those with inadequate maths skill.

University of Sydney's Professor Joshi believes the number of students entering Go8 universities inadequately prepared for university mathematics is directly linked to the poor state of maths tuition in schools.

"More and more students coming into the junior years of high school actually have lost the very fundamental skills . . . they are having trouble doing fractions at high school that should have been developed at primary school level," she says.

Academics also point to the decline of university maths and statistics departments, with many in deficit and facing further cuts. Melbourne's Professor Rubinstein says half of Australian universities no longer offer an undergraduate major in statistics. "They shouldn't call themselves universities any more as far as I'm concerned," he says. "That is disgraceful."

Adding to the angst is the prediction that demand for mathematics and statistics graduates is expected to grow in Australia by 3.5 per cent a year until 2013.

Professor Rubinstein says that while China and India stand out as the powerhouses of mathematical skills, Australia is an exception for doing so poorly. He points to the UK, where the number of applicants to maths degrees increased by two-thirds, whereas in Australia the number of mathematics major enrolments fell by about 15 per cent.

Back at Corio South, assistant principal Amanda Hay says she has noticed the confidence of teachers grow as they embrace the maths message from Mr Hanson and Mr Ezard: "

"The work Andy and Shane are doing is helping teachers continue their own learning. Our teachers are lifelong learners, and you can't be a good teacher and help children to learn if you are not a learner yourself."


Source: The Age –


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