De-mathematising New Zealand

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 5 June 2015

Yesterday, the Initiative launched Un(ac)countable: Why millions on maths returned little. Authored by Rose Patterson, the report shows how changing teaching methods in maths have failed to improve our primary students’ maths performance.

But it is not just basic, elementary mathematics that we should be concerned about.

On Wednesday, at a function to launch the new parliamentary New Zealand-German Friendship Group, I met Professor Peter Schwerdtfeger. The recipient of the 2014 prestigious Rutherford Medal, German-born Schwerdtfeger is one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed chemists.

When I mentioned the maths report to Professor Schwerdtfeger, I did not have to explain much. “We are destroying a whole generation of students with these new sociologically inspired methods,” he complained. “The level of maths competence has been in decline for years, and we are having to fix these problems at university.”

What is happening, according to Schwerdtfeger, is a combination of two factors. The first relates to the changing methods we identified in our report. Previously there was an emphasis on learning facts and applying tried-and-tested techniques such as column addition; nowadays it is a bit of “anything goes”. In the pursuit of creativity and trying to keep students happy, we have killed the serious but important side of maths.

The second problem applies mainly at university. Maths is unpopular. It is challenging. It takes effort. In other words, it does not attract students.

“Our university system puts a dollar value on ‘bums on seats’, and so it just does not pay for universities to insist on maths,” Schwerdtfeger admits. The results are as understandable as they are perverse.

At some New Zealand universities, Schwerdtfeger explains, it is now possible to study chemistry without doing any maths courses at all. “But how are we going to teach students advanced chemistry if they do not even understand calculus?”

Schwerdtfeger knows that such views do not make him popular with his colleagues or university management. But he is seriously worried about our tertiary system being dumbed down in order to keep funding coming in. “It just cannot be right that pressure is put on departments to award PhDs since each one is worth about $40,000 to the university,” he is convinced.

And as for our primary maths methods? “Well, the old methods were good enough to bring about an Einstein. They cannot be that bad then, can they?”

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