Forty percent. That’s the approximate proportion of Australian students who start Year 7 maths below curriculum expectations. These are students who typically don’t understand how addition and multiplication are connected. As a consequence, these students struggle to ‘get’ division, place value, fractions and other areas of maths that are reliant on these formative concepts.
So many students who are behind in maths have experienced failure after failure. If they haven’t had the opportunity to catch up, then what they learn in class becomes disconnected and often meaningless. Mathematics should be learned as you would a language or musical instrument, where new pieces of knowledge and skills build on top of what has previously been learned. When this is not the case, that struggling student has to rely more and more on rote learning to get by.
In maths classrooms are children who just sit there. Apathetic. They are forced into that state out of their low self-belief and continual confusion about the lessons they are taught.
When asked to explain their thinking, they are stuck. That process of symbols and formulas laid out on the whiteboard is foreign.
These are the students who ask, “Why are we learning this? What’s the point?”
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.
I am impatient for change in education.
To communicate through mathematics is to make sense of the patterns and puzzles that surround us. It is to use logic as a means of delving through complexity and solving – sometimes imperfectly – the problems that we encounter. When so many students struggle with and grow to fear what is a beautiful and mind-bendingly intriguing subject, I am impatient for change.
A teacher I know recently moved schools, from one where over 90% of students come from non-English-speaking backgrounds and many from some of the most dangerous conflict zones in the world. Students regularly enrol at the school with little or no past educational experience.
With the benefit of hindsight, the teacher has been able to step back from the day-to-day stresses he had experienced whilst there. There were the students who had difficulty coping in a classroom environment. It’s not uncommon in schools like this to find students who have never participated in a formal educational structure before or to have those with such severe trauma that a raised voice could send them cowering in the corner.
There were the lessons he would walk out of, feeling deflated by the discovery of severe gaps in his students’ knowledge that meant that in the lesson just gone, almost nothing would have been retained.
Despite these challenges, the school I describe is in fact known in education circles for its successful student outcomes and stands as an exemplar of good practice. Every year, the school changes lives. Students finish Year 12, they get into university, where just a few years before this had seemed an unimaginable dream.
With his new found perspective, the teacher is now able to acknowledge that “the short term difficulties were overshadowed by the long term contribution to those kids’ lives”.
If you look closely enough, it’s possible to pick out evidence of change.
The boy that a few months ago was in trouble for making ‘sex noises’ in class (yeah, seriously) is now proudly sitting up the front, neatly doing his work. One morning he comes up to me in the hall: “Miss, Miss. Look! I’ve done my homework”. Such evident pride and sense of accomplishment is beaming from this young man’s face.
Ultimately there may be 40% of Australian students who begin high school already behind in mathematics. But that’s not what matters most. What we need to pay close attention to and really care about is what schools do with that figure.
The school that can change students’ lives and that helps them grow into young adults with a multitude of new options before them is the school that we need.