By Dr Leonard Bezzina from the Dept. of Mathematics & Science Education
This is Part 1 of 3 of a series of articles about the importance of learning mathematics.
Mathematics is one of the principal compulsory subjects in the curricula of education systems right across the globe. There appears to be widespread international consensus that schools at the primary and secondary school level should teach mathematics to all pupils – and this irrespective of the adopted political system and/or the predominant culture (Heymann, 2003).
Is it just a matter of obtaining another academic qualification?
Malta is no exception, with mathematics taking up 15% of curriculum time in each of the Primary school junior years (Years 3 to 6) and 12.5% of curriculum time in each of the Secondary school years (Years 7 to 11) (Ministry of Education and Employment, 2012).
Thus, all pupils in our primary and secondary schools are not only expected to study mathematics throughout their compulsory schooling years but to do so for a significant amount of time. In addition, those who wish to further their education at some post-secondary and/or tertiary institutions, such as the Junior College or the University of Malta respectively, need to obtain at least a grade 5 in their SEC Mathematics examination if they wish to do so.
This is because this level of qualification in the subject is a general entry requirement for entry into both these institutions. But why is mathematics given such importance? Why should all pupils, irrespective of their ability, aptitude, and motivation be compelled to devote so much of their time during their compulsory school years to study mathematics?
Malta: A case study
When one takes into consideration that many pupils find mathematics difficult then this question grows considerably in significance. An indication of how much pupils find mathematics arduous can be found in their performance in SEC level examinations during the past few years. This performance is not as good as it is in other subjects considered equally important – such as English Language and Maltese – both in terms of participation and results.
For instance, SEC Mathematics registration data for the May-June 2019 session show that mathematics is only one of two subjects where the number of registered candidates for the easier Paper 2B is higher than for the harder Paper 2A (2443 vs 1916 i.e. 56% vs 44%) indicating that the majority of candidates prefer to do less rather than more.
And this is not taking into consideration those who do not even bother to register for either one of the two papers (152 out of 3670 - circa 4%). Examination results are equally not encouraging. Results for the May-June 2019 session show that the percentage of those who obtained a grade 5 or better in SEC Mathematics was 56% (2424 out of 4355) which compares somewhat unfavourably with corresponding rates for SEC English Language and SEC Maltese – 71% for the former (3111 out of 4409) and 62% (2414 out of 3885) for the latter (MATSEC, 2020). Given that a grade 5 or better in SEC English Language and SEC Maltese are also required for entry into Junior College and the University of Malta, it is clear that SEC Mathematics is the more significant ‘critical filter’ (Sells, 1973) of the three. Considering that numerous pupils are struggling in their efforts to learn mathematics the question of why all of them should be compelled to learn mathematics is a significant one and requires a principled explanation.
Part 2 will focus on why knowledge of mathematics is deemed to be of fundamental importance... beyond the academic interest.
Disclaimer: Opinions and thoughts expressed within this article do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Malta.