Apr 26 2014

Math matters

David Robert Grimes points out that mathematics is of fundamental importance, a claim which I would have thought was uncontroversial in this high tech age, but apparently it’s not.

There is still a self-perpetuating apprehension about mathematics, and an attitude of contempt that must be overcome. The comment by Sheila Nunan, the general secretary of the INTO, that “it was the boys who did the honours maths led the country to ruination” borders on the profoundly anti-intellectual, and such sentiments are counterproductive to improving our national numeracy problem.

Ireland however seems to have other ideas of what’s important.

It is a damning testament to our skewed priorities that until now we have insisted primary teachers have honours Irish but showed little concern about their mathematical confidence. That we place more value on a minority language than on the language of the universe reeks of misplaced nationalism. Similarly, that we devote 30 per cent of primary teaching time to Irish and religion while our basic literacy and numeracy struggle should raise alarm bells.

Irish and religion, 30% – in primary school. That does seem highly perverse. Nationalism is not one of humanity’s better ideas, and religion is a kind of nationalism of god.


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  1. 1
    Rob Grigjanis

    That’s odd. In the 2012 OECD Pisa results, Ireland ranked higher in math, reading and science than Denmark, New Zealand, France, the UK, and of course, the USA (to pick a few for comparison). All scores above average. They must be doing something right.

  2. 2

    I would defend the teaching of Irish. There is evidence that growing up bilingual (as many children do in Europe) can make a person more flexible and creative in their thinking. I am half Welsh and get great pleasure from my (imperfect) knowledge of that language and its culture.

  3. 3

    It was the boys who did the honours maths that led the country to ruination, though.
    Except with the rare child-prodigy it isn’t necessary for a primary school teacher to be an expert- or even very good- at maths. Ability to enjoy and teach others to enjoy and practise the entertaining and beautiful early stages are what is necessary. For a primary school teacher being good at sudoko matters more than knowing calculus.

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    aziraphale – oh, teaching a second language is a very good idea. But why teach Irish? The only answer is nationalism (or nationalism-related or nationalism-lite), and that’s not a very good answer. Teach a world language, not a parochial language.

    It’s a bit like madrassas, in a way, or those schools that do nothing but study the Talmud. It’s the opposite of expansive. Education should be expansive. That’s the point of it.

  5. 5

    Nationalism was often enough at the root of emancipation of a lot of repressed peoples. Sure it can be abused, but so can a lot of lofty ideals.

  6. 6

    Ophelia, you and I get a world language for free. I feel I can indulge myself with a second language which belongs to the country I live in. If small states don’t support their own languages, those languages will disappear and the world will be poorer.

    It is a continuing argument here in Wales. Some parents would prefer the time devoted to Welsh to be used for another language, but I think they are in a minority.

  7. 7
    The very model of a modern armchair general

    I agree with most of what DRG writes, but as a fellow Irishman I must offer a bit of context. This article was written in response to a speech by our minister for education, who mentioned that primary school teachers (i.e. – teaching ages 5 – 12) should “have honours maths” (i.e. – should have studied higher level mathematics in the Leaving Certificate exams, which take place at the end of secondary school – at about 18).

    Higher level maths gets quite involved. Interested parties can browse past papers here: http://theleavingcert.com/exam-papers/mathematics/ It’s vastly more complex than anything one would need to teach a class of 12 year olds, who in our curriculum would be beginning to scratch the surface of basic algebra. And, as opponents of the proposal pointed out, completing the higher level maths course is not necessarily an indicator of greater intelligence or ability, because the people who tanked our economy would certainly have done honours maths too.

    It seems to me that DRG (a physicist) is simply looking for more time to be given to something that is very important to him. I can sympathise – I’m a musician, and I would dearly love for more music to be taught, and taught better, in schools. But higher maths (like higher music) is not for everyone. Our technology may all depend on it, but that doesn’t mean we all need to know how to do it. Those who are interested and capable will continue to go down that road. What we need from teachers is the ability to teach.

  8. 8

    the people who tanked our economy would certainly have done honours maths


    Bankers (and politicians) … and higher maths?


    I have certain doubts about that. Even being good at banking (or politics) doesn’t require higher maths, and people who are good at that should have known how not to tank an economy.

    Engineers, now, or scientists, or even certain people working for insurances – those do need higher maths. Oh, and math profs, obviously.

    And I say that as someone who loved those higher maths … and now has close to zero opportunities to use them, making my money programming computers.

  9. 9
    Latverian Diplomat

    I realize there is not infinite time in the school day, but it smacks of false dichotomy. If you want more math in the school day, just say so. The question of what students might need less of is a separate issue, it seems to me.

    I also object to lumping in Irish with religion. Any language is ideally suited to elementary education, Children at that age soak up language like a sponge.

    Religion is an absolutely poisonous topic for elementary school children, who mostly lack the tools to defend themselves against indoctrination.

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