"Disadvantaged students tend to learn simple facts and figures; more privileged young people develop deep conceptual understanding"by Wendy Jones / 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.