The prerequisite for success

The Chief Scientist of Australia, Dr Alan Finkel AO FTSE, spoke to the Mathematical Association of Victoria’s annual conference, exploring the reasons why studying maths is critical and the steps needed to support students to achieve. This is an edited extract of his speech.

2018. A composite number composed of two prime numbers multiplied together.

But more to the point, a year that saw Australia leading, winning and supercharging mathematics around the world.

We began in January, with the Australia Day Awards. We met the Head of Maths from Cherrybrook High, Mr Eddie Woo: teacher, YouTuber – and now, officially, our local hero.

Then it was May, and Australian mathematician Geordie Williamson was elected at the age of just 36 as the youngest living Fellow of the Royal Society.

To July, and we saw two golds, three silvers and a bronze won by our students at the International Mathematical Olympiad, for an overall ranking of 11th – our best performance since 2015 and our third best of all time.

And Nalini Joshi, the first female professor of mathematics at the University of Sydney, was elected Vice-President of the International Mathematical Union – the highest position in the global maths community that an Australian has ever held.

To August, and now it’s the Fields Medal. We can now add a second Australian name to that honour roll: Professor Akshay Venkatesh, also just 36.

And then to October we heard the news that Alison Harcourt, 89, had been named 2019 Victorian Senior Australian of the Year, recognising her life-long and continuing contribution to mathematics and statistics.

I know that there are many thousands of triumphs that I haven’t covered.

We shouldn’t have to tell them that it’s unacceptable to enrol students with a level of preparation that sets them up to fail.

I mean the sort of triumphs that happen in the classroom every day – when a student, who couldn’t turn a decimal into a fraction, and was starting to think she hated maths, and was so close to ripping up the page and giving up – felt something click.

Suddenly, so many things about the world just made sense: from the price stickers in the supermarket to the numbers on the kitchen scales.

Every time it happens, it’s a win for maths – and every win for maths is a win for the nation.

So what comes next?

Teachers are knuckling down to the piles of school reports, parents are looking forward to receiving them, and students might be turning their minds to their subject choices for the years ahead.

It’s been a long time since I was one of those parents, and even longer since I was a student. But you don’t forget what it’s like to be young – and to feel like you’re holding your future in your hands.

Students should always be nurtured in an environment of high expectation, with constant encouragement, and the message reinforced at every stage: “This is important and you are capable.”

But I feel like the scientists working to rescue threatened species. The signals are disappearing from university course guides and are not there in the popular culture or the media.

They are certainly not there in the approach we take to those critical national assets: the people who specialise in the teaching of maths.

Why would you think that maths is important if for every year of your secondary schooling you were taught by an out-of-field teacher?

Fewer than one in four students is supported by qualified, expert maths teaching professionals, all the way from Year 7 to Year 10. And that’s assuming a definition of “in-field teaching” that some consider inadequate: one semester of study at university.

The dedication of out-of-field teachers to their students is not the issue. The issue is the lack of commitment right across the system to the teaching of maths.

And even if we woke up tomorrow and made it our top priority, it would take at least a decade to turn things around.

It’s the chicken and egg dilemma.

Without great teachers, we don’t develop confident students. Without confident students, we can’t train enough great teachers.

I put my concerns to some deans of engineering and one of them said to me: “But Alan, if we were to reinstate mathematics prerequisites the schools would have a problem because there are not enough secondary-school mathematics teachers.”

“Of course there aren’t,” I replied. “That’s because universities have stopped signalling the importance of mathematics!”

We are in a spiral. So the question for me, and for this conference, is where and how to intervene.

Let me leave you with some of my recommendations, with a focus on what we can do right now – today.

Keep up the pressure on universities to be a connected part of the education system.

The lack of guidance provided to students about their subject choices is unacceptable. Until we see improvement, we will continue to send the wrong message to students, to parents and to principals.

Such as advising them to try to game the ATAR, and then we blame the ATAR. Wrong target.

ATAR is not meant to stand alone, but to be a team player. It plays best as the goalie among the team of prerequisites. We shouldn’t have to tell universities to face up to their responsibilities as part of the education continuum.

For that matter, we shouldn’t have to tell them that it’s unacceptable to enrol students with a level of preparation that sets them up to fail.

But as regrettable as it is, that’s the position we’re in.

If this worries you, take heart in that you are in a position to express your concerns to Vice-Chancellors.

To let them know just how hard it is in the absence of a signal from the universities to persuade your students that, yes, they really do need to take maths at a challenging level, all the way to the end of Year 12, if they want to keep the doors of opportunity open.

It is possible for universities to change their position on prerequisites.

In 2016 the University of Sydney announced that it would be reintroducing mathematics prerequisites for 62 degrees, starting next year. I commend the University of Sydney for doing so and I am sure that every other Australian university will be watching closely.

We can do a much better job of celebrating those principals, schools and students who double-down on maths and get the results.

Australians have been told for a very long time that maths is in decline. But too often the conversation stops short at “we have a national problem” – before we get to the second half of the sentence: “We can and will do better.”

Maths teachers know better than anyone that when you set out to do something hard in the belief that you’re hopeless and you’re going to fail, it’s amazing how often your prediction comes true.

That’s why great teachers create an atmosphere of high expectation – and pause to acknowledge success. We can all learn from the wisdom of teachers.

Earlier this year, my office published an Occasional Paper drawing on some research we commissioned from the University of Tasmania.

We didn’t look for the top performing schools – instead we looked for the top improving schools, which we defined as those whose NAPLAN numeracy scores had significantly improved over a two-year period.

We identified more than 600 schools.

What did those schools we surveyed have in common? Here were the top three characteristics:

  1. Principals and heads of curriculum who understood and valued mathematics and made a point of regularly including the heads of math in policy discussions.
  2. In-school support for professional learning: structured, embedded and obligatory.
  3. A cohort of maths teachers with confidence not just in the subject, but in their school, and its commitment to their development.

Maths teachers know better than anyone that when you set out to do something hard in the belief that you’re hopeless and you’re going to fail, it’s amazing how often your prediction comes true.

None of those things should come as a surprise, but I want the message to school leaders to be absolutely clear: the responsibility for progress doesn’t just lie with the teachers.

It doesn’t just rest with the education departments and politicians. True, we need the universities to step up to the plate, but we cannot wait for them. Schools themselves need to address the problem.

Elevating our commitment to teaching as a profession.

When I think about what it means to be part of a profession, I think about the way that we train engineers.

Engineering courses are accredited and have to meet international standards. If you want to land a senior position, then you’ll want to show your employer that your name appears on the National Engineering Register. In Queensland, it’s compulsory to be registered. In other parts of the country, it’s strongly advised.

Then you have to maintain your registration – and that means meeting the requirement for continuing professional development.

Currently, that’s an average of 50 hours per year. Your employers know this when they hire you and factor it in to the cost of employing accredited, professional engineers. Professional development is part of the package deal.

Why don’t education departments include a requirement for discipline-specific training for teaching?

I know that across the country teachers and organisations like the Mathematical Association of Victoria are already working hard to improve the professional status of teaching as a career.

As Chief Scientist, and as an individual who cares passionately about education, I ask: What more could the system be doing to support our teachers?

In the consultations undertaken for my report to the Commonwealth and State education ministers earlier this year, on optimising the partnerships between businesses and schools in STEM education, the issue of the composition of the 20 hours of professional learning that teachers are already committed to undertaking every year came up frequently.

As a result, in our report to the ministers, we called for the strengthening of teacher professional learning to make sure that the 20 hours required per year includes a proportion of discipline-specific material.

We also called for the discipline-specific training to be delivered by accredited providers.

To be fair, principals and education departments have to make sure teachers have the time and resources to undertake it.

And to be meaningful, it has to be part of the continuing registration process – just like it is for lawyers, just like it is for doctors, and just like it is for registered engineers.

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Dr Alan Finkel AO FTSE

Chief Scientist of Australia

Dr Alan Finkel AO FTSE became Australia’s eighth Chief Scientist on 25 January 2016. He has an extensive science background as an entrepreneur, engineer, neuroscientist and educator. Before becoming Chief Scientist, he was the eighth Chancellor of Monash University and the eighth President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering. Dr Finkel was awarded his PhD in electrical engineering from Monash University and worked as a postdoctoral research fellow in neuroscience at the Australian National University. In 1983 he founded Axon Instruments, an ASX-listed company that made precision scientific instruments. He is also a co-founder of Cosmos Magazine.