Friday, September 2, 2011

How to solve the Maths problem

Statistics show that only 16% of pupils that took Maths in the leaving cert sat the higher level paper. Or to put it another way, a massive 89% only took the lower paper. Further controversy was stoked whem Minister RuairĂ­ Quinn admitted that he didn’t know how many maths teachers had taken mathematics as their main degree subject, though he did get an extra mark for showing his workings.
By not sitting the honours paper, pupils automatically excluded themselves from many third-level science, engineering and technology courses. Apparently they had the notion that they have also excluded themselves from three or four years of grappling with unintelligible formulae and algebraic equations. Kids, eh?
A proficiency in maths is essential for working in high-tech industries, which are performing strongest in job creation. They are also fairly essential if you want to work on the checkout in Tesco’s. Like the succession of ministers before him, RuairĂ­ Quinn admitted that much work must be done to increase the number of students taking higher-level maths and he has immediately set up a task force to oversee this, to be run by somebody else.
This has led to a lot of debate in educational circles and other two-dimensional mathematical shapes, as to how we can get more students to take Honours maths without dumbing down the paper. Apparently in the international league table, Ireland lies somewhere between Antarctica and Rockall in our mathematical proficiency, one possible explanation of the deep pile of doo-doo that we find ourselves in economically.
The Minister has announced that all those taking the higher maths paper in the leaving cert next year will gain an extra 25 bonus points. He feels that this will act as an incentive to students to consider taking the subject.
Of course, smart students will take seven different subjects and put their name down for higher level maths too. Then by simply turning up on the day of the exam and staying for five minutes, they will have another 25 points in the bag.
The incentive route certainly seems to be the way to go, though it is doubtful whether your average teenager will salivate at the thought of an extra 25 points. Promise them tickets for the Foo Fighters at Slane, or free driving lessons, or a new i-Phone and then maybe the Minister might be in business.
Another option is to make all the other subjects so difficult that higher level maths will seem a doddle by comparison. In history, you could set a question worth 25% of the marks asking students to describe the prevailing weather conditions of any one particular day in the past thousand years. Or in geography, ask them to list the inhabitants of any medium sized Chinese city. That will soon have them flicking back to x, y and zed and wondering if they are quite so difficult after all.
Inevitably the topic has touched on the way that maths is taught as a subject. In much the same way that lack of affinity for Irish is often attributed to the uninspiring way it was taught in school, so the spotlight has been turned on the hard-pressed maths teachers, who possibly have only a little more knowledge of what a logarithm is than their pupils.
Rather than simply standing at a blackboard, or whiteboard or greenboard or whatever they use these days, teachers are encouraged to be a little more creative in the way they impart the mysteries of heavy sums. Glove puppets are to be encouraged, with characters such as Tommy Tangent, Harry Hypotenuse and Annie Adjacent helping to explain the ludicrous art of trigonometry. Field trips to Paddy Powers will help to debunk the myths of probabilities and role playing should help to explain the science of sets and subsets, with extra marks being awarded to pupils who take on the challenging role of the brackets.
Although it is not an official ministerial directive, teachers with dull, boring voices have been encouraged to attend evening classes in rap and hip-hop in the hope that kids will start to see higher mathematics as something wicked, innit, rather than dull and irrelevant as the general consensus appears to be at the moment. Eminem has been approached to duet with Dizzy Rascal on a song about the complexities of the laws of indices and it is hoped that the resulting video will feature in classrooms from September, while Jedward’s new single has been provisionally titled Baby we love your integer coefficients.
Mr Quinn has encouraged young people who are disappointed with this year’s maths results to seriously consider re-sitting the exam next year. Sadly most young people, it would appear, would rather stick red hot pokers in their eyes. And who can blame them?

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