Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Place of Mathematics Education in Ireland’s Future

I had the privilege today of being asked to chair a national symposium on mathematics teaching,  organised by Professor Clive Williams and the TCD Faculty of Engineering,  Mathematics and Science and hosted at the RIA.   The full programme of speakers is here,  and about 90 people nationwide attended - third level academics,  second and primary level teachers and associations,  business associations and public servants - and, for part of this afternoon, the Minister for Education and Science,  Batt O'Keefe.

PJ Rudden has led a wonderful and insightful review of the education of mathematics and science a second level,   and we will be launching the study and its recommendations next week during Engineers Week.

I have some personal views on the subject,  and have posted these separately here.

Bill Lynch of the NCCA opened the presentations by giving a summary of the Project Maths initiative,  and its current status.   Elizabeth Oldham then gave a perspective on behalf of the Mathematics Teachers' Association,  noting the central role of mathematics in the recovery of the economy and the critical importance of developing teachers' fluency and competence.

I unfortunately then had to leave the symposium for an hour to speak to the BT Business of Science and Technology programme.  Clive Williams took over as Chair,  and then filled me in afterwards,  noting that Patricia Callaghan,  TCD Academic Secretary,  had expressed strong opinions on the rewarding of the effort required for honours level Leaving Certificate Mathematics.  Maria Meehan,  of the UCD School of Mathematics,  reported in particular on the role of undergraduate volunteers in secondary schools,  and noted that the feedback from some secondary school students undertaking honours level Leaving Certificate Mathematics was a strong desire for additional recognition for the effort required.

I returned from my talk to the BT Young Scientists to hear PJ give a summary of our draft report (which he had also given to Council last saturday).

After lunch,  Paul Sweetman of ICT Ireland and the ISA,  gave an international perspective on the current ranking of Ireland as regards mathematics competency.

We then had three volunteer rapporteurs:  Ronnie Breen of DETE,  Tom Brazil of UCD and the RIA,  and Sean Gannon of TCD.   The audience divided into three and I challenged each group to come back (after an hour) and deliver at least one and not more than three recommendations of who should do what by when and why!

The Minister Batt O'Keefe then duly arrived and gave a short presentation on the status of Project Maths,  and the priorities which he is setting to develop the competence and confidence of mathematics teachers with the new syllabus.  He also noted his announcement to establish and advisory group,  including industry and academia,  to review the progress of Project Maths to date and to advise on whether or not to re-introduce "bonus points" for honours level Leaving Certificate mathematics. I then invited him to stay and listen to the key top recommendations from the three rapporteurs,  and was delighted that he agreed to do so.

Tom Brazil spoke first,  and emphasised his group's strong support for the Project Maths initiative.  He noted that resources to support the initiative were still insufficient.  His group very strongly urged that all stakeholders - industry,  professional associations and especially Engineers Ireland, government agencies and academia - should proactively support Project Maths.  His group also strongly felt that the effort required for honours level Leaving Certificate Mathematics should be rewarded by all the Universities and Institutes of Technology by awarding double CAO points.

Sean Gannon then took the floor and reported that his group strongly felt that school mathematics teachers needed support and encouragement to upskill for mathematics,  including Project Maths.  His group felt that the Teachers Council should show flexibility and recognise those who had taken additional courses in mathematics, beyond their primary degree,  should be accepted as competent to teach mathematics.

Ronnie Breen reported that his group also strongly supported Project Maths,  and that it is critical that the Teachers Council remove any doubt that postgraduate courses to enable mathematics teaching are explicitly recognised as sufficient to teach mathematics.   His group also noted that professionals with strong mathematics skills,  and in particular unemployed professional civil engineers,  who wished to switch their careers to become mathematics teachers should be automatically accommodated by the Teachers Council.

The Minister then returned to the podium and expressed delight that all three rapporteurs had expressed strong support for Project Maths.  He noted the resourcing issues,  and concerns about the Teachers Council.   He did not wish to comment on the explicit recognition of the additional effort for honours level Leaving Certificate Mathematics,  but would defer to the advisory group which he was appointing.

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