Teachers almost always come from a humanities background. It therefore doesn’t surprise that they tend to feel more comfortable teaching English, History and Geography more than Maths and Science.
A very experienced curriculum coordinator recently told me that it is very common for primary teachers to skip fractions because they aren’t confident with the topic to answer some of their own text book questions let alone explain it to their students.
TYPICAL student teachers have the maths ability of a 12-year-old child, leaving them ill-equipped to teach the subject — let alone even pass a Year 9 NAPLAN test.
The warning comes from leading university maths lecturer Stephen Norton, who said that half his students would not pass the Year 9 national numeracy test, even after three or four years of tertiary study.
“Every year I test my students and they’ve got the understanding of a Year 7 or Year 8 kid,’’ the senior lecturer in mathematics education at Griffith University told The Weekend Australian. “They struggle with fractions and proportional reasoning and anything to do with algebra. They should have mastered this by the end of primary school. I believe it is our responsibility in universities to make sure we can remediate that.’’
Dr Norton tested the maths ability of all 125 students who enrolled in a Griffith University graduate diploma of education — a one-year course for those who have a bachelor degree in another field — last year and this year, as well as 40 students in the third year of a bachelor of education course in 2013. Barely half the would-be teachers knew how to convert 5.48km into metres — and 17 per cent failed to convert 6kg into grams. Only 16 per cent could convert temperatures from degrees Celsius to Fahrenheit, using a formula written on the test paper. Just one in four knew how to convert a fraction to a percentage.
Barely one in five students could find the highest common factor of the numbers 28 and 70, and just 13 per cent knew the lowest common multiple of the numbers 40 and 140. More than half the students could not answer the question: “If the total cost of three tickets is $5.64, how much will 10 tickets cost?’’
Just one in three students knew how to calculate the areas of rectangles and triangles.
The alarming results of the only publicly available tests of student-teacher numeracy in Australia will fuel calls to reform the teaching of mathematics at schools and universities.
Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne has already flagged the introduction of compulsory literacy and numeracy tests for aspiring teachers. The most recent OECD Program for International Student Assessment test reveals that four out of 10 Australian teenagers lack basic maths skills.
The federal Education Department’s newly released 2013 teacher survey shows that only two-thirds of primary teachers and a quarter of high school teachers were trained at university to teach maths. Five per cent of the nation’s high schools had at least one unfilled vacancy for a maths teacher during 2012.
The official survey found that almost a third of teachers involved in teaching numeracy wanted more professional development on the job.
Queensland’s Auditor-General has found that one in three maths teachers in Years 8 to 10 lack a tertiary qualification in mathematics. Dr Norton said half the students he taught flunked his entry test — although their results improved by 30 per cent after they completed eight weeks of maths study, including 32 hours of face-to-face instruction.
“Most prospective primary teachers struggle with upper primary mathematics upon intake,’’ he said.
“It is interesting that the third and fourth-year undergraduate students were on par with the entry postgraduate students.
“Inability to carry out accurate division and convert a decimal to a percentage, or to carry out basic whole-number problem solving, prior and post learning, was cause for concern.
“Most students found any mathematics associated with fractions, proportional reasoning and algebra challenging and in many instances this was only partly remediated over the study time.’’
Dr Norton — who has a PhD in mathematics education and a master of science, and taught maths and science for a decade at Brisbane high schools — called for more face-to-face maths instruction for all trainee teachers.
He said he believed he was the only academic who tested trainee teachers’ maths ability before and after their maths instruction.
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