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Room for improvement in the teaching of mathematics

Mathematics teaching in primary and lower secondary school should include more realistic mathematics tasks. This emerges from new research at the University of Agder. 

Bilde av elever i klasserom
A holistic approach to mathematics teaching and learning is key to being able to use these skills in daily life.

“To give pupils basic mathematical skills, it is important to give them realistic tasks they can connect to real life situations”, says Oda Heidi Bolstad. 

Picture of Oda

Oda Heidi Bolstad recently defended her doctoral thesis with specialisation in mathematics didactics. 

She refers to the research findings from her doctoral project. Bolstad recently defended her PhD thesis ‘Teaching and learning for mathematical literacy’

She followed the PhD programme at the Faculty of Engineering and Sciences with specialisation in Mathematical Sciences

Her research focused on teaching and learning to develop mathematical literacy. 

Mathematical literacy is about having the capacities and skills you need to be able to meet the mathematical challenges you encounter in modern society. 

“These capacities are important. The term mathematical literacy is used by the OECD, and in a Norwegian context, we often talk about numeracy as a basic skill”, says Bolstad. 

Necessary skills and deeper learning in mathematics are also key in the new curriculum from autumn 2020. 

Facts about mathematical literacy

Here are some of the things included in the term mathematical literacy:  

  • The capacity to use mathematics in various real-world contexts in daily life, professionally and as citizens in society.
  • Formal mathematical knowledge.
  • Being able to make use of various aids and tools, both physical and information technology tools.
  • Attitudes are also important. You must have the willingness and self-confidence to engage in mathematical problems.
  • Finally, this must all be permeated by critical reasoning. You must know how mathematics can be used in argumentation and decision-making. It also means to be able to critically assess mathematical methods and tools, and to choose the ones best suited in different situations.

In this way, mathematical literacy is a comprehensive and complex skill.

Textbooks dominate the classroom

Bolstad interviewed and observed mathematics teachers and pupils in Year 9 at three different schools. The answers she got, show that there is room for improvement in the teaching and learning of numeracy as a basic skill. 

The teachers underlined the importance of practical maths activities. 

“Practical and relevant mathematical tasks can be efficient for learning. Still, lessons often consist almost entirely of work on tasks from the textbook. This may indicate that teachers need to develop some strategies to introduce real world relevance to their teaching”, she says

One example is mathematical puzzles concerning age. Per is twice as old as Kari, and Arne is 8 years younger than Anne. Their ages add to 100 years. The pupils are asked to set up an equation to find out how old each of them is. According to Bolstad, such tasks present a construed situation which is difficult to relate to real life. 

“In real life, you would simply ask a person their age, you wouldn’t set up eanquation”, says Bolstad. 

The teacher must understand the skills

Curricula and other strategy documents contain explanations of what mathematical literacy and numeracy as a basic skill imply. But these explanations often focus on what you can do once you have these competencies, and not how to achieve them. 

Bolstad thinks this may be one of the reasons that textbooks dominate the classroom. 

Use of realistic situations in mathematics teaching is emphasised both by school leaders, teachers, pupils and the curriculum. But in some cases, the context can overshadow other important elements that provide basic mathematical skills. In such a way, the understanding of these skills can be narrowed down to only being about mathematics in a specific situation.  

“Much of the mathematics subject content is abstract and can be difficult to relate to real-life situations”, says Bolstad. 

It is therefore an important point that mathematical abilities can also be developed through work with abstract mathematics, for example through critical discussion of mathematical approaches and tools.  

Teachers themselves must understand

Bolstad refers to previous research in the field in her thesis. From that, it emerges that participation in a professional community, where teachers themselves develop mathematical literacy tasks, is of great importance for their understanding of and teaching of mathematical literacy.

“This may suggest that excessive use of textbooks contibutes to a narrow understanding of mathematical literacy”, says Bolstad.

In order to build a broad understanding of this competence, teachers themselves must take part in developing, applying and revising mathematical literacy problems. That will make them better equipped to educate students for the future, according to Bolstad.