Add to the numeracy debate

6th April 2012 at 01:00

The Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy reported on last week by TESS is important. Confidence and ability in numeracy, and basic mathematical skills, is a real issue for the whole of the UK (and for the US), in comparison with most other European countries and other economic competitors.

I think it would be a mistake, from this survey, to conclude that numeracy learning is in very good shape in primary schools, before everything goes dramatically wrong in the early secondary years. The results also reflect the detailed designs of the tests used at each stage. The best response is to work to enhance achievement and progression at all levels, and to analyse the obstacles experienced by learners in more depth.

The driving principles of Curriculum for Excellence are surely precisely the right ones for an improvement strategy. The lesson here may be to strive harder in implementation. CfE should be seen as a continuing journey rather than as a single step change. Enhancement can be a progressive process.

So much of education and assessment has emphasised learning standard, set procedures, rather than understanding how to manipulate expressions and relationships in a valid way, or to address more general problem solving by reasoning from basic principles. The former approach develops the learner as an automaton, and it becomes increasingly more challenging at later stages as the number of set procedures to be recognised grows exponentially. Teach learners to think, rather than to respond instrumentally.

It is also important to explore the usefulness of mathematics, and to discuss how its techniques can be applied in interesting contexts. The report highlights the relevance of numeracy to other subjects, most notably for science and technology. These give wide-ranging opportunities to enliven, broaden and also deepen learning.

Such cross-disciplinary collaboration enhances the quality and depth of learning in science and technology themselves. Our organisation, STEM-ED Scotland, is collaborating with teachers through the Association for Science Education Scotland, the Scottish Mathematical Council and the Scottish Technology Teachers' Association, to identify collaborative approaches to strengthen concept and skills development in areas such as "measurement, units and scale".

Alan Roach, professor emeritus, University of the West of Scotland; honorary senior research fellow, University of Glasgow; secretary to the Deans of Science and Engineering in Scotland, STEM-ED Scotland.

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