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No secondary mathematics foundation under tertiary engineering superstructure

By John Ridd - posted Tuesday, 18 October 2011


Adequate numbers of engineers of all sub divisions are an essential pre requisite for Australia's future prosperity. Hence any shortfall in the 'production' of engineers by the Tertiary level is a very serious problem for the nation. There is no demand side issue here – engineers are reasonably paid, employment almost guaranteed, the qualifications are accepted globally and, as Professor Hargreaves of Queensland University of Technology remarked recently, the demand is sure to increase.

A recent article in The Australian drew attention to the fact that virtually half of the Australian domestic students starting an engineering degree failed to complete the qualification. In the article Professor Hargreaves pointed out that such a loss was hard to replace.

The problem must certainly be on the supply side. Because the supply into the Universities is almost entirely from Secondary schooling the issues must lie there. The deficiencies in maths and science were also noted by Hargreaves two years ago when he remarked that 'emphasis on maths and science learning at (primary and secondary) school has diminished to the extent that Australia's future ability to develop is threatened'. He referred to a fall in emphasis on maths and science 'over the past 20 years'. Earlier Archie Johnston, then President of Australian Council of Engineering Deans stated (The Australian, 11/01/06) that 'the biggest hurdle is mathematics, the demand for mathematics in the schools has plummeted' and commented that university training in engineering demanded a solid preparation in mathematics in school.

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The evidence that secondary school maths standards are poor is overwhelming:

  • The most recent International Maths and Science Study TIMSS shows that not only are our children beaten in maths by heavyweights Teipei, Japan, Singapore et al, but also, by a large number of places such as Bosnia Herzegovnia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Lithuania and Malta.

  • In algebra, 'the gateway to further mathematics', Australian children do not even reach the global average. (471vv500).

  • TIMSS awards an 'Advanced' standard to students who do really well at the test. 40% of students in Taiwan reached 'Advanced', in Australia only 6% managed that, and Queensland (where Hargreaves struggles away) it was just 3%.

  • Research by the Australian Council for Educational Research demonstrated that in maths to Year 10 exit in Queensland standards had declined by two years learning over the last twenty years or so.

  • Ten years ago research entitled Maths as a Foundation which found that at Year 10 exit in Queensland there were huge differences in standards of student work even across students who had all been awarded the highest achievement level, (Very High Achievement VHA). Ability to apply mathematical techniques, e.g. algebra, on entry to Year 11 was abysmally low even for classes taking the highest levels of maths in Year 11. Samples of student work in algebra were variable and many were astonishingly weak.

The problems are across the nation, across the States and across school 'types'. Hence the problem must be caused by an overarching body or collective of groups. That is what I have called previously The Education Establishment (TEE). The two main constituents of TEE are University faculties of Education and the State/Territory Board of Study. Because of the very direct power that Boards have over what happens in the schools they can legitimately be seen as the Action Arm of TEE.

In Hargreaves's Queensland, the Studies Authority (QSA) determines totally all subject syllabi for all school years and across all school types. QSA's authoritarian power in assessment means, without any doubt, that they also control how things are to be taught.

Systems are non numerate, opaque, verbose and depend on a near continuous sequence of 'assignments', the provenance of which is weak. In contradistinction to the authoritarian assessment system, the syllabi fail adequately to define ideas, skills etc to be understood/learnt. Consequently tertiary departments such as engineering, mathematics and the numerical sciences can have no real certainty as to what their student intake has been taught or any reliable information of standards reached.

The students are unprepared, especially in algebra, for Year 11 Maths B, the subject level required as a minimum for engineering for example. Few students are awarded less than a 'Sound' level of achievement because many weak students achieve that level primarily on the strength of results from assignments of doubtful provenance. Consequently many of the students start Tertiary studies are technically weak and are unreliable in the application of both algebra and calculus. It is totally unsurprising that about half of domestic students fail to complete their engineering studies. I am surprised and pleased that half do pass!

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So who can bring about radical improvement? QSA cannot because they are convinced that they are doing a good job –never let the hard evidence get in the way of the story!

Commonwealth governments and parliament can do little. Both the Howard government's attempt to introduce a national certificate and the Rudd/Gillard government's attempts to produce a national curriculum were in some ways laudable. Howard's attempt failed and Rudd/Gillard attempt will have little or no effect because of the fact that the States control everything especially assessment systems. In the absence of a reliable and common assessment system across the nation there is little hope of any improvement stimulated from the centre. All power lies with the States/territories and hence within the local Board of Study.

The serious problems faced by our country in that it is unable to produce an adequate supply of Engineers, mathematicians and numerical scientists are well known and have been for many years. State politicians know and do nothing at all even though Education has the biggest budget every year. That is bitterly disappointing. So the Commonwealth parliament can not and the State parliament will not do anything. Who or what can pressure the State parliamentarians into action? Only the 'consumers' of school education have the ability to do that. Tertiary departments and faculties are a major 'consumer' group.

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About the Author

John Ridd taught and lectured in maths and physics in UK, Nigeria and Queensland. He co-authored a series of maths textbooks and after retirement worked for and was awarded a PhD, the topic being 'participation in rigorous maths and science.'

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