Students who stick with maths score ‘brain plasticity’ and enjoy other advantages.
More than 140,000 students in NSW and Victoria will sit HSC or VCE exams next month. But while English is compulsory, about 25 per cent of students ditch studying maths in years 11 and 12.
In fact, maths has steadily dropped among Australian senior students overall. According to the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute, year 12 students’ participation in higher maths courses decreased to 9.4 per cent in 2017, the lowest level in 20 years.
Australia’s performance in maths has also declined in the OECD benchmark Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which found that, in 2019, the average 15-year-old Australian student’s maths skills were more than three years behind that of students in China, and more than a year behind Australia’s maths skill levels in 2003.
In the UK, similar declines in senior school maths have led education authorities to consider making maths compulsory in senior school years.
“Rather than asking, ‘Should maths be compulsory, the more interesting question to me is: ‘Why aren’t students choosing maths’ ?” says Eddie Woo, of Sydney’s Cherrybrook High School, who also delivers Wootube – maths lessons on YouTube.
Woo says the reasons behind the decline are complex and making the subject compulsory in senior high school isn’t the solution.
Woo says there’s strong evidence that maths is a powerful tool for navigating and interpreting the increasingly data-rich world around us.
“Mathematics is an incredibly coherent, continuous subject” he says, adding that concepts learned in kindergarten continue through primary school to year 12.
“It’s a wonderfully compelling and unified story – just like the Harry Potter series, where seeds that were sown in book one finally resolve in the last book.
“But for lots of students, maths in senior high school is like trying to read Book Seven when you never gave them Book Three and half the pages were missing from Book Four.” One or two negative years of study can derail a students’ understanding.
“We rely on an abundance of untrained out-of-field teachers to teach our kids mathematics because there are simply not enough trained teachers in maths, and they need a lot more support” Woo says.
The good news is that even where students have missed a chunk of maths education in their early years, it’s possible to fill in the gaps.
A ‘MATHS BRAIN’ ADVANTAGE
Recent research from the University of Oxford found that teenagers who abandoned studying maths at age 16 had lower levels of a significant brain plasticity-linked chemical named gamma-Aminobutyric acid, but these brain changes did not occur before students quit maths.
According to neuroscientist Professor Roi Cohen Kadosh, who led the study, the research also indicated maths skills were linked to a range of positive outcomes in employment, socioeconomic status, mental and physical health.
This research adds to a growing body of work that points to maths as being good for brain development even beyond formal school years.
Recent maths-related neuroscience research from Michigan State University shows that our brains create the most efficient neural pathways when we challenge ourselves to overcome mistakes and struggles so as to reach a correct outcome.
University of Queensland Associate Professor Katie Makar says there is emerging evidence that developing a “mathematical mindset” makes a bigger difference to our long-term ability in maths than brain chemistry.
“A mathematical mindset involves the knowledge and disposition to understand and make sense of the world through mathematics – not the formulae and procedures we learnt in school, but as practices that help us to see the patterns and structures around us,” says Makkar.
“The long-term effects of dropping maths in senior high school is that it makes it harder for students as adults to see maths as relevant and accessible”
Eddie Woo says he’s not surprised by the research. Much like playing a musical instrument or a sport, maths is a practical skill, he says.
“Your maths skills are like a muscle that needs to be trained and which atrophies when you stop using it” he says.
Most adults who don’t use maths regularly may find their own skills regress to around year 8 level, Woo adds. “It’s recoverable, in fact my own understanding of mathematics has mostly come because I started from scratch when I realised that I didn’t really understand the concepts as I was teaching them. I could follow the steps but I didn’t know why”
TRAIN YOUR BRAIN
Woo says recent research around neuroplasticity and the ability of the brain to rewire itself tells us that a “maths brain” can be learned.
“We used to think that either you were a mathematics person or you weren’t ; you’re just born a certain way and if you’re not inclined and you don’t have that kind of talent, you’ll never get it. But research has tipped that on its head”
Woo says parents often don’t feel confident helping their child with maths homework.
Yet one of the most powerful things an adult can do is be willing to admit they don’t know, but will help their child work it out. That demonstrates curiosity, perseverance and that maths is worth the effort.