Missing the Point about Maths

I don’t usually comment on second level education on Anseo.net.  However, I’m fairly open about the fact that I think the Leaving Cert is a dreadful idea.  Like many others, I feel that the Leaving Cert is simply a memory exercise, where one has to – in the words of Daithí Ó’Mhurchú – regurgitate the last 6 years of knowledge.  I did my Leaving Cert in 1997 and it hasn’t changed that much.  My main memory of the Leaving Certificate was choosing the bits of the curriculum that my teachers thought were going to come up in the exams.  Therefore, in English, we didn’t bother studying any of Shakespeare’s sonnets or Paradise Lost by Milton.  In Maths, I think I skipped learning a few theorems off by heart, which brings me to my point.
The Sunday Times reported today that there is a bit of a scandal about Paper One of the Maths Leaving Cert.  I read the first words of the argument:

Paper 1 was the most difficult yet, featuring questions that…

I expected the end of the sentence to be something like “were not on the curriculum” or “a higher standard than previous years” but no.  The problem was that these were questions “that pupils could not have anticipated”.
In other words, they were questions that pupils guessed would not be on the paper so didn’t learn them.  There’s one of two things wrong here.  The first is that perhaps the curriculum for second level subjects is too broad and thus there’s too much to learn.  The second possibility is that students are not learning the full curriculum relying on predictions and rote learning based on previous years.
However, the biggest thing that is wrong is the general acceptance that not being able to anticipate questions is an issue.  The Maths paper, I believe, should test Maths ability not rote learning.  However, unfortunately, I anticipate that nothing will change.

0 thoughts on “Missing the Point about Maths”

  1. I could ramble but enough to say my leaving was completed in the late 1970s and it was the same then. I agree with everything you say.

  2. To be fair to the students that sat this year’s exam, the Sunday Times assertion that the difficulty with Paper 1 was “that pupils could not have anticipated” the questions, is inaccurate; the questions were were extremely challenging.
    There is also seems to be a lack of wider appreciation that this LC exam was the last of the old syllabus; a syllabus which dates back to the 1970s.  While it has been tinkered with over the years, the underlying mathematical philosophy, based on the French ‘modern maths’ which emphasised abstract mathematical concepts and technical skills, has not changed.
    The new syllabus (the roll-out of which is farcical, but that’s another story) is called Project Maths and is based on the Dutch ‘Realistic Maths Education’, it’s consistent with the type of maths investigated by the PISA studies.  It is radically different in its conception of maths, emphasising the problem solving nature of maths and situating its study in concrete problems (including real-world situations).  It also requires a very different pedological approach than currently predominates in Irish maths classrooms.
    In 2 years time, when all students are studying the new syllabus, the maths classrooms should finally feel very different to those of the 70s and rote learning will be of no use.

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