Numeracy…. it matters

I saw this tweet on my feed a while ago and it has been nagging at me…..

Which linked to an article Screen Shot 2016-02-08 at 9.01.44

The article raises concerns that less and less students are taking the maths classes that allow them to participate fully in STEM courses at uni. So while there is a large percentage of students taking maths, they are taking ‘dumbed’ down versions.

Based on my own experiences, I can say I think New Zealand is in a similar boat to Australia. I have noticed more and more during all of my ‘Science’ classes that what I would consider ‘ numeracy skills aren’t there. Students are often surprised when I can add up numbers quickly in my head, or look at some numbers and give an approximate total (usually fairly close)

My big bug bear around numeracy in Science is TRIANGLES. Science teachers NZ (and possibly the world) over will know them. You put your finger over one corner and it gives you the formula that you need to calculate.


Now, I hear you screaming at me that they are an easy way for students to get over the line. We need to help those students get the credits….

Which leads me to a controversial point in my head –

are we actually harming students by giving then such a helping hand?

Take maths and the article in question. Students are finding maths hard, so we provide multiple options to ensure students gain some success. But then, when they get to the next level, they aren’t prepared for the challenges and they flounder.

Or worse, they get to uni and fail. Nothing wrong with failing, unless it costs you $10,000 a year to be there in student loans, and you can get another go for a fee…… and all of a sudden students have a huge debt and no high paying job prospects with which to pay it off. As some-one still paying off her student loan, I can say I grossly underestimated the affect it would have on my life and income. It just hangs there…. but that is another blog post.

I was talking to some-one else about whether Chem needed a numeracy entry requirement, and they questioned if it wasn’t just the maths skills gained but more the problem solving strategies. I am a convert to this – I remember thinking when the hell am I ever going to use this at school when we were learning BEDMAS. But now, having a set way of attacking problems holds my in a good position in a wide variety of situations, not just maths problems.

So by making the maths as easy as possible and finding shortcuts and cheats, are we robbing our students? In the rush to get students through, are we short selling them on the skills that are really useful. And in turn, are we short selling our future problem solvers and leaders. So short selling ourselves?

And how can we stop the trend that maths is hard and the short cuts are the best way to get students to where they need to be?


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