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Too little knowledge about how we teach vocational mathematics

According to new research by Associate Professor Trude Pedersen Sundtjønn, students in vocational subjects took on the role of expert when working on maths problems that were relevant to their profession.

Associate Professor Trude Pedersen Sundtjønn has investigated how vocational school students worked on maths problems which were related to their future profession.
Associate Professor Trude Pedersen Sundtjønn has investigated how vocational school students worked on maths problems which were related to their future profession.

“The students are used to how work is done in the professional field. If they are given mathematics tasks that do not reflect that reality, the tasks are almost ignored”, says Associate Professor Trude Pedersen Sundtjønn. 

She recently defended her PhD thesis on vocational mathematics assignments entitled ‘Opportunities and Challenges when Students Work with Vocationally Connected Mathematics Tasks’.  

In her dissertation, she studied upper secondary school students in the vocational programmes Technical and Industrial Production, Media and Communication, and Design and Crafts. 


Trude Pedersen Sundtjønn sier at funnene i doktorgradsavhandlingen hennes viser noe om hvordan vi bør tenke rundt matematikk hos yrkesfag i fremtiden.

Trude Pedersen Sundtjønn says that the thesis findings say something about how we should think about mathematics in order to improve the quality of vocational education.

Little research has been done in the field. Therefore, Sundtjønn wanted to find out how upper secondary school students work with mathematics problems that have a connection with their future profession. She also wanted to find out how they view the connection between the vocation and mathematics. 

“I was surprised at how good the students were at saying: ‘This is not how it is done in real life’. It was fascinating how committed they were to the context”, she says. 

Sundtjønn noticed how enthusiastic some students were about the realistic tasks. In some cases, she saw that the students took over the role of expert from the teacher. This was to show how the given task would have been solved in the workplace. 

If the maths problems were unrelated to their everyday work however, the reaction was very different. Instead of thinking about how to solve the mathematics problem in practice, the students often had a much more theoretical approach to the task. 

“Many upper secondary school students who choose to take vocational programmes have chosen this because they like the vocational subject. Unfortunately, for many students, mathematics is not a favourite subject”, she says. 

Adapted mathematics teaching

Sundtjønn emphasises that the thesis findings say something about how we should think about mathematics in vocational programmes in the future. 

Trude Pedersen Sundtjønn mener det er et uoppdaget hull i forskningstemaet, som bør forsker mer på. - Hvordan kan vi undervise på en god måte med matematikk på yrkesfag, og tilrettelegge matematikk på yrkesfag relevant for videre fremtid? Der jeg ville startet, sier hun.

Trude Pedersen Sundtjønn believes there is an undiscovered gap that needs more research. “How can we teach mathematics in vocational programmes in a good way? That is where I would start”, she says.

“Mathematics teachers know very little about vocational subjects. I have noticed that myself. Mathematics in vocational practice is not the same as mathematics in general education. For those who want to get a vocation, it is important to think about what the maths subject should contain, and what work methods you need to know to become a good professional”, she says. 

According to Sundtjønn, more attention is needed on how mathematics can be better adapted for vocational students. 

“What kind of mathematics should students learn when they take vocational programmes? Do they learn mathematics for the sake of general education? Or are they learning maths because they’ll need it in their future workplace?” 

Wants to change maths lessons

In recent years, the government has focused on the need for more applicants to vocational programmes at upper secondary level. 

Sundtjønn sees that her research can invite discussions about what the subject of mathematics should be in the education of vocational students in the future. The goal is to be able to deliver a better educational offer with higher academic quality to vocational students.  

“In my study, I saw that work with vocational tasks provides opportunities to change the norms of classroom mathematics. This can allow for changed interaction patterns and discussions about what the subject of mathematics should be in the education of vocational students”, says Trude Sundtjønn. 

Sundtjønn has followed the PhD programme at the Faculty of Technology and Science with specialisation in mathematics education at the University of Agder. She currently works as an associate professor at OsloMet.