Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Course Counselling and Mathematics

The current Mathematics course is not my favourite of the past few editions.  

It has four main courses: 
- Foundations (for students that require basic numeracy)
- Essentials (for students to develop their basic numeracy to a TAFE level)
- Applications (for students to develop skills for higher learning)
- Methods (for students seeking maths skills for tertiary math/science courses)

and a fifth course Specialist that can be taken in addition to Methods (for those seeking tom complete Engineering or Mathematics courses at University without additional courses to bridge to the level required)

Unfortunately WACE and University entrance is the main reason why the majority of students take Mathematics courses.  I would suggest that seeing Mathematics as only a pathway to higher learning or graduating high school is a very limited view as it does not consider the requirements after entry to a learning institution and for lifelong learning.  

The difficulty gap between Applications and Methods is large, much larger than in the previous iteration of ATAR courses (2AB/2CD 2CD/3AB 3AB/3D) as the option to do 2CD/3AB no longer exists.  The mean for Applications is 55, which results in half of the students sitting the course not having scores that is conducive to a university entrance score.   Given this is the case, half of these students end in TAFE or using other courses to build their ATAR score.  Getting a 1st or 2nd ATAR score with Applications is unlikely (and when done, tends to be students that drop in from Methods in Year 12.  Given this, as a counsellor, if I was unsure about whether a student should do Methods in Year 11, I would counsel them into Methods and parachute them into Applications if they were unsuccessful in Year 12).  This makes choosing Applications a problematic choice for many students (why do it if there are other subjects that I am more likely to gain a score with).

The mean for Methods is 65 with a SD of 12, with 3/4 of students getting a scaled score above 55, indicating that this is a course to build a reasonable ATAR score around. If students have the ability to do Methods, they should.  If they wish to do a Science based course, this is the only option to gain the thinking and capacity required for Science courses.  They may not use all of the Maths, but they will gain skills invaluable for learning new content beyond their current understanding.

The difficulty of Specialist has reduced its importance over time for maximising ATAR scores as the effort required is often better put to ATAR English, Chemistry, History or Physics and is only done by those with a passion for Mathematics.

My frustration with the current counselling thinking is that because many university courses do not have Mathematics pre-requisites, that it is better to do Applications (and pass) than Methods and potentially fail or that if students have C's or D's in Maths they should bypass Essentials or Applications and do other subjects instead.

To this I would simply say - Mathematics is about lifelong learning.  It is more than just entry to tertiary education.  There is no point gaining entry to higher learning, to only fail (or have to do bridging courses without the assistance available in school when you get there).

Doing Specialist puts you in an elite group of people able to do something that the majority of people cannot do.  Putting yourself in an elite is never a bad thing if you have the ability to do so.
Doing Methods takes effort, but is an opportunity to stretch yourself and truly learn how to learn. It will help a student get to university in the majority of cases if they have shown the aptitude in previous years.  If you complete Methods, you are likely to be a competent Mathematics student at university.
Doing Applications will develop your mathematical skills to a level that will mean in the majority of cases you will not need to learn more mathematics in later life but is unlikely (in many cases) to assist with University entry.
Doing Essentials will help you reach the next level in Mathematical understanding.  You will better understand the world in which you live from a basic numeracy, financial, measurement and statistical perspective.
Doing Foundations will raise your basic understanding of numeracy to allow you to function in society.

From a school point of view Mathematics provides opportunities in senior school to exploit 4 years of learning in lower school and has a course for any student - more so than any other subject (I'm looking at you English and HASS!!).  It is cheaper, more flexible and easier to run a full Mathematics course than 5 elective subjects trying to cater to various needs and ability levels under-subscribed.  A lesson learned by a few schools I dare to think.  Not making Mathematics compulsory results in significant bloat in school offerings.

To get students to choose Mathematics willingly requires many years of work.  Students must have an understanding that they will be supported, will pass and that there is an option tailored and available for them.  This is especially true for students with Ds and Es in lower school.  For the first time, in Senior school these students have courses that are designed for them (Foundations and Essentials) and there is a clear path to find success.