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‘Conventional teaching of maths adds to fear of students about the subject’

 GUWAHATI, March 29 - Young students need to be taught maths by being shown the joy and curiosity that it can support and not in a drab, conventional manner which often gives rise to a sense of dread of the subject in the young learners.

This observation was made by eminent mathematician Dr Stuart Kohlhagen, Senior Fellow of Science and Learning at Questacon (Australia’s National Science and Technology Centre) while talking to The Assam Tribune.

Dr Kohlhagen, who was in the city to conduct a teachers’ workshop in collaboration with the National Council of Science Museums (NCSM), said that maths in primary schools is still mostly taught by teachers with little, if any, specific training in understanding or supporting maths learning.

“Many of these teachers themselves had poor experiences in maths, and the students often have parents that have also had poor maths learning experiences. It is also presented as a high stakes subject – you are right or wrong – unlike arts or humanity subjects where there is more scope for points of view, perspectives and alternative approaches. And maths can be a hard subject, especially at advanced levels,” he said.

According to Dr Kohlhagen, the conventional teaching of maths by rote, without showing the joy and curiosity that it can support, has been adding to the fear of students about the subject.

“It is often presented as either abstract with no purpose, or solely as a utilitarian skill – you need to learn this so you can deal with your finances. Few of us get excited about budgeting. Maths is these things, but pressuring students to learn because it is important, is in fact counter-productive. Lack of curiosity is one of the key drivers for poor academic outcomes. Teaching that kills curiosity kills not only joy, but grades. It is not the fault of teachers, but of a system that has reduced maths education to a few key skills to be remembered long enough to pass an exam,” he said.

Dr Kohlhagen teachers need to be given time and space to bring the subject alive, keep it challenging, and engage the students.

“Science communicators such as myself,” Dr Kohlhagen said, “have experience in informal education…free choice learning. As such, we have skills not in formal teaching, but have approaches that engage, foster curiosity, group interaction and also find relevance and joy in topics, including maths. Partnerships between the formal and informal education sectors are immensely valuable in that they provide an opportunity for both domains of professionals to exchange ideas and approaches.”

On the importance of computational thinking in learning maths, Dr Kohlhagen said, “It is a set of skills that helps people to understand a new problem, gives them strategies to think and view it in different ways, so they can find new or efficient ways to tackle the problems. Only once you have these insights to a problem can you use software and computational power to automate the handling of the problem.”

He added that those skills support critical thinking, problem solving and innovative idea generation, even when the use of computers is not needed. Thinking in these analytical ways helps tackle many problems in mathematics, logic, in organisation and planning. They are one of prime 21st century skills.

On his long experience as a maths teacher, Dr Kohlhagen said he had been involved in informal hands-on learning, with a focus on science for nearly 40 years and, “Over that time I have come to see that these approaches, developed in science education, can be adapted to support some aspects of maths learning. In my capacity as a visiting Professional at the University of Canberra – at the SERC (STEM Education Research Centre) – I work with some of the world’s leading maths education researchers and teacher trainers.”

One thing that is clear from the research here and across the world, he added, is the value of what one sees as spatial reasoning – the ability to see shapes, problems, patterns, combinations and to manipulate these in one’s mind.

“Such skills are not only useful for engineering, or playing with blocks, but the same mental skills help us handle and recombine other abstract concepts. This is critical in geometry, and also in subjects like algebra and areas of abstract mathematics that require you to rearrange elements to reach a solution. Spatial reasoning has been a key aspect of early childhood – block play for example – but it has been put aside too early - with a move to more didactic methods, of pure drill and practice without extensions into understanding or curiosity,” he said.

On teachers’ capacity building, Dr Kohlhagen said that the capacity building projects that he had developed and are running, had been designed with impact in mind.

“In most cases the workshops bring formal and informal educators together. What I share is of immediate benefit, but the communities and networks that emerge from the workshops are of even greater value. Museums and science centres, innovation hubs and the like, see that they have a role and value for teachers and students within the formal education system,” he said.

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