How to solve the problem of lifting mathematics skills in Australia

Solving the problem of improving mathematics in Australia starts in the early years

National News
The University of Canberra has developed the ELSA program to develop spatial reasoning skills in young children. Picture: supplied

The University of Canberra has developed the ELSA program to develop spatial reasoning skills in young children. Picture: supplied

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The race is on to improve mathematics in Australia.

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Mathematics teaching experts are calling for a strategic look at how the discipline is taught in Australia after the federal government announced it would spend $9.5 million on a new training platform for teachers.

The new investment one part of a raft of strategies put in place to prepare children for the careers of the future amid Australia's flailing maths results on the international stage.

Last year's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report found Australian students were sitting just above the OECD average for maths, the worst result since the survey began.

Meanwhile the mathematical workforce is ageing, with 49 per cent of secondary schools principals reporting that vacancies for maths teachers were the most difficult to fill, according to a 2018 Australian Education Union survey.

Education Minister Dan Tehan announced Education Services Australia and University of Adelaide researchers had been commissioned to deliver a series of mathematics Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) for teachers which will be hosted an online resource hub for teachers, parents and students.

Project lead and University of Adelaide research fellow Dr Rebecca Vivian said current teacher training for digital technologies delivered through similar online courses had proven to be an effective way to engage teachers at scale.

"We really want to aim to inspire Australian teachers to engage students in informative and engaging ways and making sure that classroom, curriculum content is delivered to students in a way that engages and excites them.

"A huge focus is also on helping students and teachers see the importance of mathematics and numeracy to their everyday lives but also to the careers of the future and the careers of today."

Teachers will be able to take the online courses in their own time while being supported by project officers in every state and territory in Australia to tailor it to their school. The resources will be free for schools to use and able to be adapted to each state and territory's curriculum.

Dr Vivian said rural and regional teachers in particular would benefit from online professional learning that they couldn't necessarily get in person.

"Teachers anywhere with an internet connection are able to participate in professional learning and what we really try to do is centre this around communities of practice."

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The extra spending on mathematics teacher training and resources has been largely welcomed by the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, but chief executive Dr Duncan Rayner said it was important to be strategic about how funding was invested.

"To me it's really important to step back a bit and see: what are we doing well and how can we improve?

"Let's look at some overseas cases in terms of curricula, in terms of teaching methods and really make sure the strategic direction is right for spending this kind of money opposed to putting things up on a website and letting people use it."

Dr Rayner said the focus needed to be on improving maths in the primary school years, something that was made more challenging by the fact that most primary teachers were responsible for all subjects rather than being specialists in mathematics.

"If [students] lose the confidence in primary school and they don't get the concepts they're supposed to understand, then that's going to deter them from continuing with their studies."

This is the focus of the Early Learning STEM Australia (ELSA) project developed by the University of Canberra's STEM Education Research Centre.

This play-based digital program is based on research which shows that spatial reasoning is the biggest predictor of a person going into a STEM profession.

University of Canberra vice-chancellor Professor Paddy Nixon with Professor Tom Lowrie, developer of the ELSA program designed to introduce young children to STEM and spatial reasoning skills. Picture: Supplied

University of Canberra vice-chancellor Professor Paddy Nixon with Professor Tom Lowrie, developer of the ELSA program designed to introduce young children to STEM and spatial reasoning skills. Picture: Supplied

The centre's director Professor Tom Lowrie said a big challenge for developing digital programs was ensuring they were sustainable, otherwise they could quickly become outdated and stale. He said a sound basis in up-to-date pedagogical research was also crucial.

"Any scheme, whether face-to-face or online, has potential but if you're just trying to plug gaps and plug perceived holes in peoples' knowledge, it's likely to fall short."

Professor Lowrie said the ELSA project was now in a sustainability phase, looking for outside financial support so the initial government investment did not go to waste.

"You have to keep working hard once you've developed a product to make it worthwhile. That's the challenge but it's important to do."

Dr Vivian said the new MOOCs and platform would be self-sustaining in that teachers share their ideas and learn from each other long after the site goes live.

Initial funding will get the project off the ground and help recruit the mathematics experts needed to build the courses, but there was no guarantee of any ongoing government support to make sure the program can continue.

"Ongoing funding would just ensure that we have that face-to-face or online support for schools to continue and to help teachers engage in the MOOCs as well as to just review and refresh content, because we know that we want to make it as cutting-edge and innovative and up-to-date as possible for schools."

The story How to solve the problem of lifting mathematics skills in Australia first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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