Do Teachers need Honours Maths?
What does atan(y,x) do? If you did well in your Leaving Certificate Honours Maths paper this year, you probably know the answer. If, like me, your Leaving Cert is a long distant shuddering memory that comes up in dreams from time to time, you probably don’t. Of course, that is unless you want to write a computer program that allows an object to bounce off a surface and this little equation does the work for you.
The Sunday Times featured an article stating that primary school teachers are going to have to have honours maths in the their Leaving Certificate to get into teacher training colleges if the Minister for Education has his way. It seems to be one of the “sweeping” changes that will somehow transform our education system and increase Irish children’s performances in numeracy.
As I’ve said, I am a product of Honours Maths in the Leaving Cert and I did well in the exam. However, I would argue that it certainly hasn’t made me a better teacher of maths at primary level.
It goes without saying that to teach any subject, you need to have a base level of competence in it. I would imagine being fluent in the aims of the curriculum would be decent baseline. To teach English, you need to be competent in the language but you probably don’t need to be able to analyse Shakespeare’s sonnets to be able to teach English to 12 year olds. Similarly, in Maths, I can’t see why being able to instantly solve simultaneous equations or being able to work around the world of sines and cosines are of any value to a 12 year old unless they can be used in a 12 year-old’s real world.
Primary school children need a solid grounding in mathematics. At primary school level, this involves getting the foundations of mathematics right, that is, for me, empowering them to manipulate numbers and to associate real world situations to mathematics. I often ask teacher training student to look at the mathematics of their mornings and it surprises them that almost from the minute they open their eyes, they are faced with consuming maths. For example, their mobile phone is a complex world of mathematics. Our job is to help our children become creators using these mathematical concepts rather than only consumers of it.
The thinking behind making teachers have higher qualifications in maths seems to follow the adage of the teacher being a fountain of knowledge, the sage, to teach is to pass on knowledge to children to consume . While this may have been possible before the technological age, it doesn’t really follow the aims of 21st century teaching where our job is to empower children to think, to create and to question.If children can see that adding, subtracting and other basic manipulations of numbers have real life associations, it follows that when they meet more complex notions of atan(y,x) later on, that they know what it does and why it’s useful to them. Rather than getting teachers to do better in Maths at their Leaving Cert, I would think the focus should be on how can we help teachers teach maths better. If we start there and we show real world examples of how simple mathematics can affect real life, we’ll be giving our children the start they need to become the creators.