The landscape of education

Jobs requiring STEM-literate students are on the rise, yet fewer students are electing to study maths at senior level.
Reading Time: 6 minutes
April 29, 2019

In the headlines

We all know the dismal facts and dire predictions. The number of Australian students choosing to study maths in the senior years of high school and beyond is shrinking.

According to projections by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, employment is predicted to increase in professional, scientific and technical services by 12% and in health care by almost 16% over the next five years. Meanwhile, the STEM pipeline of primary and secondary students, graduates and job seekers is declining. This is ‘a major concern for industry,’ according to the Australian Industry Group’s CEO Innes Willox.

2015 PISA results comparing the performance of students internationally showed that only 9% of Australian students demonstrated advanced knowledge of mathematics, compared to 41% in the top five performing countries.

A 2017 study by Wienk reveals that the proportion of Year 12 students electing to study senior mathematics is now at a 20-year low. This is also confirmed by NAPLAN, which in addition to showing a small decline in the overall number of students studying maths, reveals a more worrying trend of students selecting ‘easier’ subjects in order to maximise their university entrance scores.

Beneath such headlines are other worrying truths. The smaller percentage of girls, compared to boys, pursuing Advanced Maths and STEM careers; the ongoing challenge of ensuring that merit is what predicts student success rather than socio-economic background; the disaffection and underperformance of talented maths students and the loss of maths teachers to other professions due to the lack of support that would enable them to teach in ways they know are effective.

The root of the problem

As maths teachers, we want all of our students to succeed. We want every student to be engaged in maths, to see its value and to progress their mathematical understanding as they move through their schooling. However, the reality in Australia is that the traditional age-based learning approach has not served students and teachers well. Students are expected to learn the curriculum for their year level whether they’re ready for it or not.

Students don’t have to master this content either — they’re moved on to the next concept regardless of their level of understanding. Even students passing with 60% or 70% have gaps that will stop them from comprehending new concepts. This matters. Students deserve to progress, and in order for this to happen we need to know the gaps and competencies of each individual student.

Research shows that there’s an eight year spread of ability in a typical Year 7 classroom. Using data from Maths Pathway assessments, we found a similar spread of achievement. The spread ranges from students who are struggling to count, to those with a deep mathematical understanding of age-based content.

This creates an extremely challenging situation in the classroom. Despite extraordinary efforts by teachers, students who are below the expected curriculum level are often not adequately supported and those at the top of the class are not challenged enough. Students are often rote learning and fail to master many concepts throughout the school year. Over time, most students fall behind and many disengage with maths. This is where these challenges begin. Most students who achieve low numeracy scores in Year 3, never catch up to their classmates, falling even further behind by Year 9.

Our data shows that traditional ways of teaching maths will see an average of just 9% of students reaching or exceeding the expected curriculum standard for their year level. This means that by the time these students enter Year 10, the vast majority are unprepared to continue their studies in maths related fields.

In fact, data from Australia’s 2015 PISA results show that 22% of Australian 15 year-olds fell short of PISA’s minimum proficient standard (Level 2), compared to only 9% of students in the world’s five best performing education systems. The types of opportunities that students will have in the future workforce are directly linked to the competencies they have attained by age 15, making the lack of mathematically skilled job seekers not at all surprising.

In the classroom

Ask teachers and they’ll be the first to tell you that the solution to the STEM crisis, and lack of mathematical understanding, begins in the classroom. Teachers know that personalised learning makes sense and done well, it can have dramatic results on student progress. However, to effectively address this issue we can’t expect teachers to go it alone, a whole range of supports are required to allow teachers to apply high impact practices in the classroom.

After all, placing further pressure on teachers to provide personalised learning to every student is not realistic — teacher workload is already problematic. In ACER’s ‘School Staff Workload Study’, 50% of secondary teachers reported they were unable to meet the demands of quality teaching. These demands include the selection of appropriate learning resources and meeting the diverse learning needs and motivations of their students.

This isn’t to say that teachers are not already putting in heroic efforts to try to meet the needs of every student. Many are. They’re placing more time and energy into differentiated work for their students, while still feeling the pressure to move students through the curriculum regardless of their readiness. Let’s be clear here — teachers are trying to do the impossible.

We can’t provide truly personalised learning,and be expected to teach and assess students against their year level syllabus. It defeats the purpose. The very point of personalised learning is to progress each individual at their own pace along the learning continuum. Learning objectives, content, method and pace may all vary. The implicit expectation placed on teachers to make sure that all students  ‘progress’ to the same attainment level in 12 months disregards the reality that students all have different understandings and work at different ‘paces’.

This effort and pressure can leave teachers feeling overwhelmed. The fact that up to 50% of new teachers leave the profession in their first 5 years comes as no surprise.

It is therefore vitally important to ensure that teachers don’t just have the resources to effectively target their teaching, but the support as well.

A model for all students

When students experience targeted teaching they often don’t just progress in their learning, they become more engaged. When they’re learning the maths that they’re ready to learn, students can experience success and become more confident in their mathematical abilities, leading to more interest in the subject.

This ‘goldilocks’ content — not too hard, but not too easy — is a vital part of personalised teaching.  Students should be challenged and engaged by a problem, but they must also have the foundation knowledge to be able to be capable of solving it.

Hitting this point of need can be difficult to do alone.  We need data on each student’s gaps and competencies to determine what they’re ready to learn. Plus ongoing assessments that monitor progress and define what students should learn next.

This is one of the reasons that schools across Australia are implementing Maths Pathway — to support teachers to target their teaching using  a holistic approach. The model leverages technology to deliver diagnostics and ongoing formative assessments, providing teachers with live, actionable student data that’s easy to access. This ensures students get right content, which consists of carefully scaffolded learning activities that work to build students’ understanding, fluency, problem solving and reasoning skills. This leaves teachers with more time to focus on what matters — teaching their students.

Research shows that targeted teaching works and data from Maths Pathway students is consistent with this. Students using the model master twice as much curriculum in one year as they would in a traditional classroom. This progress is being sustained by students too.

Anecdotal data about increased enrolments in Advanced Maths courses suggests that students learning with the model have the skills they need to pursue maths as they move into senior school. At Lavalla Catholic College, for example, teachers report a 25% increase in enrolments in Maths Methods among students who’ve been using Maths Pathway since Year 7. The school’s NAPLAN results have also improved, with students beating the state average.

Galen College also reported an increase in demand for both the Year 10 preparatory program and Year 11 Maths Methods classes, while the demand for basic numeracy classes has halved. And at Brighton Secondary College, 41 students are more than six months ahead of their expected year-level. Before implementing our model in 2015, only five students were in this group.

These results are exciting. Not only because we’re seeing students progressing and taking an interest in maths, but because these students are opening more opportunities for themselves in tertiary studies and beyond. They’ll be numerate enough to pursue whatever they may dream for their future. That’s not just a big deal for them, it’s a big deal for Australia.  If more Australian teachers are supported to deliver targeted teaching and more students engage and progress in maths, we could see our international standing in mathematics turn around.

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