Calculating the future

Wednesday, 28 March 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As the Examination Department readies itself to release the latest round of Ordinary Level results, thousands of parents may hear the bitter news that their child has failed Mathematics, essentially failing the entire exam. Traditionally, as many as 40% of students who sit for their O/Ls fail this crucial subject and it is important to understand why.  

Sri Lanka needs to find an equitable solution for teaching maths and preventing large numbers of failures. The low quality of math instruction in Sri Lanka’s schools, a decades-long battle over how math should be taught and the general belief among educators that math is only important for some to learn, are partly is to blame for this problem, say experts. 

Despite Sri Lanka’s illiteracy levels being low, it is questionable just how high reading abilities are and whether they give students the ability to think through abstract concepts as well as handle basic computations and spatial concepts. 

Math is a critical element in even high-skilled blue-collar jobs. Welders, for example, need trigonometry skills for sophisticated metal work. Young men and women with strong math skills will likely end up in jobs that have high salaries.

More importantly, math plays a critical role in understanding abstract concepts that often come up in business and economics. As with so much of Sri Lanka’s education crisis, the problem lies with teaching and curriculum. The highly-skilled math students who could become teachers aren’t likely to join a profession in which performance-based pay is eschewed for degree- and seniority-based compensation; with prized skills, they earn more and gain greater job satisfaction in, say, the tech sector. This leaves the nation’s classrooms to be staffed by aspiring teachers who are not as likely to have strong competency in math and are even less likely to be well trained to do so. 

The fact that many teachers and principals think of math as something that only some kids can learn – even though the rigours of reading instruction are just as difficult to master – also hampers efforts at math instruction. Montessori teachers, for example, ignore the need to show kids that numbers represent quantities. As a result, kids fall behind early and often. But solving the nation’s math problem may require tackling the leading symptom of the nation’s education crisis: increasing high-quality literacy and reading comprehension. 

The very skills involved in reading (including understanding abstract concepts) are also involved in more complex mathematics including word problems and algebra. International studies have shown poor readers tend to do poorly in math. As with reading, it will be up to parents, relatives and other adults to start their own math classes and teach kids multiplication and algebra themselves. 

Tuition classes are often the solution in Sri Lanka but the high number of failing students suggests this is not a successful route. It would also be interesting to further examine the backgrounds of the 112,978 students out of the 264,177 in 2014 who failed math and then compare them with those who did not. 

Charities in Sri Lanka also provide ‘math libraries’ to schools so children can have new and fun ways to learn the subject. Perhaps they need to become standard and math teachers given regular opportunities to upgrade their teaching skills. 

Math is a critical talent for the future workforce and therefore indispensable. Poor math could eventually result in a poor country.