July 25, 2024

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Opinion |  There are new problems in mathematics education, so do not use old solutions

Opinion | There are new problems in mathematics education, so do not use old solutions

The quality of numeracy education in the Netherlands is a sometimes hotly debated topic. Affected by declining scores in international tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and national cohort measures by the Education Inspectorate, media outlets such as the Norwegian Refugee Council regularly call for a back-to-basics approach: a return to the ancient practice of basic operations such as multiplication and division. I claim here that this is not the correct method because it currently requires different skills.

Is the decline in Dutch mathematics performance worrying? There are reasons to put this into perspective. In the Netherlands, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) was administered earlier in the academic year this time. Dutch performance in numeracy remains above the international average, which has also fallen, just like scores in other areas. Moreover, a lack of motivation for such types of tests can play a role: after all, nothing depends on it, and Dutch students are sensitive to this. But at the same time, this decline is also a wake-up call: we should be concerned about the level of numeracy skills in the Netherlands, especially if the performance of a large number of students is so low that they are not sufficiently equipped to function well as citizens and professionals in a society full of numbers and graphs. Charts and graphs. Because of these concerns, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science initiated the Basic Skills Master Plan.

But what are the basic skills meant today? These basic operations were addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. It’s still important to understand what’s involved and master it. But let’s face it: Have you, dear reader, ever done a calculation on a 17 x 28 pattern without a calculator, computer or phone? If it never happened, does it really deserve such a high place in our education? You have to deal with other mathematical matters on a daily basis: understanding when to multiply instead of adding, estimating risks, for example in the case of vaccinations or other medical contexts, understanding percentages when it comes to purchasing power, VAT or discount, or reading Charts of climate developments or house prices. As a citizen or professional, you constantly need this type of skill, which is referred to as numeracy or mathematical knowledge. These are the basic skills that are the goal of numeracy education. We are not alone in this opinion: it is a global trend in recent decades. A study of curricula and current literature confirms this picture: at the international level, basic mathematical skills are understood not so much as performing basic operations, but skills such as looking critically at statistical data and solving problems.

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Do routine sums deserve such a prominent place in our education?

This interpretation of basic skills means that reverting to the old educational model of endlessly demonstrating, imitating, and practicing basic operations will not be productive. You will learn basic operations in the short term, but it will only help you to a limited extent with the relevant skills in the long term. You cannot solve the problems of the future by turning back the clock a century.

Ideas are central

Return to deteriorating performance. How do we explain that? Could the so-called realist approach to teaching numeracy be responsible for this? The essence of this approach is not that assignments are packaged into pseudo-realistic stories, but that the account has meaning for students: they realize what they are doing, understand why the methods used work and can apply them functionally in appropriate situations. This also includes practice and automation. But what is key are insights that you can refer to if the situation deviates from the norm and that help you solve problems. This is more important today than ever before.

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The claim that realistic arithmetic instruction is the cause of decreased performance has no scientific basis. It is illogical for various reasons. First, at the height of the realist approach, at the turn of the millennium, the performance of Dutch students was among the best in the world. Second, we see that the implementation and design of these principles in textbooks and educational practices increasingly leaves much to be desired and increasingly departs from the original idea.

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What do you do next? Some solutions are interdisciplinary, for example regarding teacher shortages and the social status of education. First, especially with regard to arithmetic and mathematics, teaching materials could be improved: many school methods, which consider themselves realistic, are too messy and too thick: the lines of learning sometimes overlap, and the essence of learning is sometimes invisible. A realistic approach does not mean that everything has to fit together. Second, we need to balance practice with automation and developing numeracy and problem-solving skills. Thirdly, the task of teacher training colleges is to properly prepare future teachers for their work. High-quality numeracy education depends on teachers who are not afraid of numeracy but who radiate: numeracy is useful and fun!

So there is work to be done. There are no simple solutions, so let’s not pretend that a simplistic, nostalgic view of education from the past provides them with solutions.

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