Thursday, 18 August 2011

Maths Teaching Again in Focus after Leaving Cert Results

This year's Leaving Certificate Results were released yesterday, and again we heard in the media about a 'further drop in maths and science grades' and urgent calls for reform from IBEC and the American Chamber of Commerce. On closer examination though it was a mixed bag - a higher % than ever achieved grades A, B and C yet the proportion of Leaving Cert students taking Honours Maths remains at a stubborn 16 - 17% - no improvement on previous years.

Students are still deserting the Honours Maths paper at Leaving Cert in favour of chasing Honours in other 'easier more engaging' subjects. This is of major concern to Engineers Ireland because a minimum Grade C in Honours Maths is a requirement for all university entry to Level 8 Bachelor of Engineering courses. Such was our concern two years ago that we commissioned a Task Force Report on the Education of Maths and Science at Second Level which I chaired as Vice President (see 2010 photo)

The launch of the Engineers Ireland Task Force Report on the Education of Maths and Science at Second Level during Engineers Week Feb 2010 Aoibheann Ni Shuilleabhain Maths and Science Teacher, Dr Chris Horn then President of Engineers Ireland, Sarah Green Maths and Science Teacher, Eamon Prendergast Research Engineer Engineers Ireland and P J Rudden then Vice President of Engineers Ireland and Task Force Chairman

We should not be surprised at the low % taking Honours Maths at Leaving Cert when only 40% of students take Honours Maths at Junior Certificate level. Overall there appears to be a lack of passion and enjoyment to the learning of Mathematics in its current form and indeed also to Physics and Chemistry but not so Biology which some 40% of Leaving Certificate students take. The numbers taking Applied Mathematics are also disappointing for such an interesting foundation subject towards engineering courses.

Of course the newly introduced Project Maths approach and 'bonus points' at Leaving Cert will help. However, the Task Force Report identified that the basic problem is the quality of teaching and degree of 'rote learning' especially at Junior Cycle. The 24 pilot schools for the new Project Maths syllabus this year don't appear to have performed any better than those of previous years. Yet it will take some 5 to 10 years for the new Project Maths approach of 'learning through understanding' rather than 'learning through rote' to embed fully at Second Level. So it’s too early to judge Project Maths which we have to support as 'the only show in town'.

One of the Task Force recommendations was to assist students and employers in the 'learning outcomes' through improved CPD training of teachers and greater assistance and encouragement to students. That's why Engineers Ireland have been running free Maths Grinds in LC Honours Maths in Clyde Road every Saturday during school year for the past 18 months and extending this to Junior Certificate in the coming school year. These grinds by fantastic Volunteer Engineer Tim Joyce are greatly appreciated. Yesterday at midday an hour after the results were announced one of the students who signed up for our grinds last year put this message on our Facebook page 'I'd just like to say many thanks for the free Leaving Cert Maths grinds, they were a huge help and contributed a lot to my grade!'. Great praise indeed to Engineers Ireland and to our Director General who indeed was on radio and TV yesterday articulating our concerns at the current national deficiency in Mathematics as a subject.

So for us at Engineers Ireland we are assisting where we possibly can from our own scarce resources but the entire Second Level school system needs radical reform to make learning outcomes more relevant to the needs of industry and the modern world. I'm glad that such an overhaul is currently now planned at Junior Cycle by Ministers Quinn and Sherlock and hopefully then Senior Level together with a more 'jointed up' transition from Primary to Second Level. We intend staying with these reforms and being part of the transformation of the Irish education system as its too important to the growth of our profession and to the recovery of the Irish economy.

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