Studies over the last couple of decades have shown that young people are voting with their feet when it comes to studying more difficult school mathematics.
Numbers of HSC maths students are dwindling.
In fact, it is a serious national issue that will only be addressed by being taken on by the whole society – parents, educators, business and governments.
There is consensus that fewer young people taking the higher end mathematics means that we will have increasing shortages of key science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates able to drive innovation and create the jobs of the future, whether in mining, sustainability or finance.
This puts the country’s international competitiveness and whole economic future at risk.
Of course STEM careers, based on high level school mathematics, are not a pathway for all students.
However, our increasingly technological world requires everyone to have higher levels of numeracy than ever before.
This is as true in the workplace as it is in everyday life where we face important financial and other decisions on a daily basis.
Consider the forthcoming federal election campaign.
Politicians will try to convince us to vote for them with arguments that will rely heavily on data. Voters should critically analyse their arguments, and that relies on having both the mathematical skills and the confidence to do so.
The second of these, confidence, is not likely to be increased by making students study mathematics when they don’t want to.
The students not going on to STEM careers already leave school having been taught far more maths than they will use.
But too often they leave without appreciating the subject, understanding how it can be used or seeing themselves as competent users of maths.
The mathematics community has identified a wide range of causes of this drop in numbers of students taking mathematics. These include an overcrowded curriculum; maths teaching skills among those teaching the subject; many students ‘turned off’ mathematics; career counselling; teacher preparation; and not enough time for learning mathematics.
And there are more.
All of these are certainly worthy of investigating and addressing.
That is why, as part of its development of a 10-year plan for the Mathematical Sciences, the Australian Academy of Sciences has identified issues in school mathematics as one of the seven key areas, alongside other important areas including university teaching of mathematics, mathematics research and links with industry.
The Decadal Plan is intended as the blueprint for taking Australian mathematics – and school mathematics in particular – back to the top of the tree where it belongs. However the plan will not be able to establish the kind of society-wide changes to thinking about mathematics and its place and importance in the lives of Australians that are necessary.
The education sector can only go so far. We can build the professional expertise of current and
future primary and secondary teachers of mathematics. We can work on teaching mathematics in ways that engage and excite all students.
We can generate school leavers who have the mathematical skills to drive both economic and social well-being.
But alongside this we need a population informed about and committed to the mathematical well-being of Australia.
Leaders who understand and promote the countless ways in which mathematics is essential in what businesses and governments do.
And scientists, engineers and technologists who do likewise.
And parents who talk positively about mathematics with their children on a daily basis.
Are you up for it?
Dr Kim Beswick, President Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers
Will Morony, Chief Executive Officer Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers
CALCULATE: Girls outnumber boys, and maths student numbers generally are falling fast.