INTO Congress: Should teachers have Honours Maths?

Now that the dust has settled over a rather uncomfortable few days of the various teacher unions, it was interesting to read about people’s reactions. Sadly, the disgraceful antics of a few teachers has only cemented the popular view of whinging teachers. Thankfully, primary teachers seemed to behave themselves and didn’t succumb to any inappropriate behaviour.

Ruairi Quinn made a bit of a gaffe when he bemoaned the feminised state of primary teaching and decided to link this to the non-requirement of Honours Maths. Sheila Nunan’s response was unfortunate. Her “Hell hath no fury..” speech where she decided to compare those who do Honours Maths to the men who ruined the economy was as unwise as Quinn’s gaffe. I presume both will have regrets on an issue of great interest.

Sheila Nunan responds to Ruairi Quinn at INTO congress 2014: Image from Irish Independent

Sheila Nunan responds to Ruairi Quinn at INTO congress 2014: Image from Irish Independent

Should primary teachers have Honours Maths at Leaving Cert? I wrote an article two years ago when the Sunday Times first pondered this issue and I haven’t really changed my mind much. Even though I am a product of honours maths, I don’t think having this makes me a better primary school teacher.

I still think it is much more important that our teachers become better teachers of Maths rather than simply being better at maths themselves. It is not how good we are at Maths that makes the difference, it’s how good we are at helping children to be good at Maths. However, where I have changed my mind is that I didn’t refer to a minimum baseline of ability for teachers in Maths. My understanding is that teachers only require a D3 grade in ordinary level Leaving Certificate Mathematics and I don’t believe this is anywhere near enough. Looking at the papers in the past, some of the questions could be found in later chapters of 6th class Maths Book.

For example, the first question of the 2010 Maths paper was:

Express 40 metres as a fraction of 1 kilometre. Give your answer in its simplest form.

In fact, barring this question:

Screenshot 2014-04-25 10.47.08


all the other questions in Q1 are on the primary curriculum. (I’d argue that even the question above, written slightly differently could be done in 6th class.) Going through the rest of this paper, if the questions were written a little bit differently, many of them could be done by a high-ability 6th class pupil. For a primary teacher to only get 40% of this paper correct, is probably not good enough, when one considers the ability that is expected in other core subjects. Moreover, the fact that in 2008, a study of 80 trainee teachers showed that many of them failed the 6th class Sigma-T,  is also deeply worrying.

While it sounds like I’ve completely changed my mind, I still don’t believe that a teacher requires Honours Maths in order to be a primary school teacher. However, I think a higher minimum grade in ordinary level is required. I’m not sure what that would be but based on the paper above, maybe 80% would be a decent, if a little arbitrary, baseline. (Having said all this, I don’t think the Leaving Cert is the correct way to assess whether someone would be a good primary teacher or not, but that’s another article!)

Why don’t I think we should expect a student to have Honours Maths? Check out the very first question on the same Leaving Cert paper for higher level maths:

Screenshot 2014-04-25 10.59.15

I don’t know many primary school pupils who would know where to start with this. It gets a lot harder after this into a world of Greek letters, logarithms and advanced trigonometry! I’m not sure how relevant most of the questions on the paper are to the real world either, whereas I could instantly see their relevance in the ordinary level paper, (unless of course we all become gaming programmers).

There is a massive knowledge gap between higher and ordinary level maths. Despite not studying Maths for over 10 years, I could probably get close to 100% in the Ordinary Level paper, I might only realistically get 10-20% in the higher paper. I don’t believe there would be this much of a gap in other subjects. Maybe the Project Maths scheme has narrowed the gap between Higher and Ordinary level Maths but if it hasn’t, I can see how some students wouldn’t even try to attempt Higher Maths.

Anyway, going back to the 2 gaffes, I was part of a survey of male primary school teachers in 2005, which set out to discover why so few males were going into primary school teaching. I remember bring surprised that the study showed that the biggest reason by far was the requirement to have honours Irish at Leaving Certificate. I don’t see how adding an Honours Maths requirement would change that statistic much. However, Nunan’s remarks seem to negate the importance of mathematics altogether. Maybe it was in the heat of the moment, but it could be claimed that she reckons having Honours Maths is undesirable. I think this has potentially has even more dangerous implications than Quinn’s foolhardiness, which he has already apologised for, thankfully.

A tweet quoting Sheila Nunan at INTO congress (Source: Twitter)

A tweet quoting Sheila Nunan at INTO congress (Source: Twitter)

We know that children growing up in the 21st century will need mathematical skills so we need to be able to give them the required skills for this. We need to enable children to think mathematically rather than focusing on getting answers right. We need children to understand what they are doing in maths and see how the concepts link with the real world. We need children to begin realising that maths is no harder than any other subject. Having teachers with Honours Maths won’t necessarily do this, though a minimum baseline of being able to understand primary mathematics is essential. However, it’s certainly not unimportant and it won’t lead the country to ruination. Equally, it won’t reverse the ratio of females to males in the job.

Comments (17)

  1. Luke April 30, 2014 at 2:41 am Reply

    They are disappointing statements, from both parties, but I would have to say that the lack of maths education is one of the reasons we got into the mess. I don’t think Hon. Math should be necessary for primary education, but a D3 in Ord. Level is not right either. I also think that going forward it should move away from leaving cert results and instead focus on an intensive graduate level teacher training, so more teachers would have a varied undergraduate degree across multi disciplines. Some of the best primary school teachers I know had undergraduate science, engineering and business degrees and chose to go into primary school teaching in their mid 20s.

    I would really like to see greater participation of primary schools in the Young Scientist exhibition, or have it open up to primary school kids to take part.

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