"Disadvantaged students tend to learn simple facts and figures; more privileged young people develop deep conceptual understanding"by / July 7, 2016 / Leave a comment
The OECD likes its education stats. In the four years since it published the results of its 2012 survey of 85,000 15-year-olds in 65 countries as part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), it’s been relentlessly recycling the figures, milking a massive bank of international data to offer new insights into what works and what countries could be doing better.
It did it again recently with a new report looking at what PISA tells us about achievement in school maths. Equations and Inequalities: Making Mathematics Accessible to All offered the troubling headline that only a minority of 15-year-old students grasp and can work with core mathematical concepts, with, on average, less than 30 per cent of students across OECD countries understanding the concept of an “arithmetic mean.” Look at the relevant chart and you’ll see that that figure drops to 18.6 per cent for the UK.
The report drew some fairly uncontroversial conclusions, so uncontroversial as to be almost in the category of the bleedin’ obvious, as far as many maths educators are concerned. Young people, it said, need to develop a better understanding of the basics of maths. They also need to be taught problem-solving strategies and be set open, challenging problems, in place of routine tasks. Teachers should support positive attitudes towards maths, provide their students with multiple opportunities to learn key concepts at different levels of difficulty and offer tailored help to those struggling.
Who’s going to disagree with all that? Certainly not the campaigning charity of which I am a trustee. National Numeracy (NN) has long argued that young people need to be equipped mathematically to tackle the complex problems that they will encounter in the real world and that they need more practice at school with these sorts of problems. We’ve also developed our own model of the core concepts, the basic “what you need to know,” which we call the “essentials of numeracy” and which can be applied in a whole range of practical contexts. And we’ve talked at length about the pernicious prevalence of the belief that some people just can’t do maths and so it’s ok to not even try.
One problem with the OECD’s latest analysis is of course that the data are just very slightly old. The Department for Education was quick to defend its corner and point that out that much had changed since 2012, with curricular and other reforms. Well, possibly. New PISA figures will be out later this year and then we’ll see.
But underpinning all this is a whole cultural hinterland of bad attitudes to maths, low confidence and antipathy to maths among too many young people, parents and even teachers. That’s going to take more than one PISA cycle to fix.
And this is about more than bringing up the average—the “mean” that only 18.6 per cent of UK teenagers apparently understand. Ever-keen to spot the socio-economic patterns across countries, the OECD points in this report to the large differences in learning experiences between poorer and richer kids.
While disadvantaged students tend to learn simple facts and figures, more privileged young people experience teaching that helps them think like a mathematician, develop deep conceptual understanding and advanced reasoning skills. And grouping children by maths “ability” can reduce opportunities for the more disadvantaged, says the report, although it recognises that teachers need more support in running mixed-ability classes. (Again, look up the relevant chart and you’ll see that the UK and Ireland have almost 100 per cent ability-grouping—or streaming—for 15-year-olds.)
This feels like yet another indicator of what a massive and unresolved issue educational inequality is in many countries, not only the UK. And not just education in general but specifically in maths. Performance in maths is often claimed—with some substantive evidence—to reveal the biggest equality gap among subjects. The recent report from the Fair Education Alliance showed that less than half of children on free school meals in England made the expected progress in maths at secondary school.
And those who don’t make that progress are those who go on to be barely numerate as adults. The government’s own “skills for life” figures—now a few years old but there is nothing to replace them—show half the adult working-age population in England possessing the numeracy skills expected of children at primary school. It’s what my charity is trying in its modest way to tackle though its National Numeracy Challenge.
Writing this in the wake of the Brexit vote, I am tempted to point to this as an illustration of what a divided country the UK is. I won’t go as far as to suggest that better maths among the population at large would definitely have yielded a different result. But then again—better conceptual understanding, mathematical reasoning skills, familiarity with tackling more complex problems? Well you do wonder.