Friday, September 09, 2011

Transition Year kills Mathematics learning

The Minister for Education is "concerned" about the poor results our students are getting in mathematics. He's going to "examine ways to improve" those results.

If all the Minister and his department examine is the curriculum then they've already failed. At a minimum he has to explore whether the fact that so few of the teachers who teach math at Leaving Cert level are actually qualified math teachers is having an impact. Although I'm not so worried about "qualified" as able: able to fully understand the material and able to teach.

Something else they should consider is Transition Year. Transition Year is a real problem when it comes to math.

Based on my experience Transition Year is a math killer. How? Well, from the time the Junior Cert is over until 5th Year begins, students do very little meaningful math work. The hard-won skills and knowledge acquired in the years leading up to the JC do a lot of atrophying during the intervening 15 months while students 'explore other avenues' or whatever the excuse is for TY.

Other than for the occasional Einstein, math is all about learning through repetition. You learn a concept; you work it to death until it's second nature then you introduce another concept based on those concepts already learned.

Yet, as just about any graduate can tell you, once you leave the classroom behind most of those math skills and abilities fade. There's little call for trigonometry or geometry or simultaneous equations in the 'real world.' Only, in Ireland, our students are having that graduates' experience during TY. Years of learning is lost in 15 months of mathematical brain inactivity.

And don't try and tell me that math is part of TY. It's not, not really. Not the sort of math that would prepare a student for the content of the Leaving Cert program, especially the higher level program. There are no difficult concepts presented and no hours of homework doing repetitive problems during TY.

There is so much material to cover by the end of the Leaving Cert cycle that there is no time for a few weeks of review when 5th year begins. The teachers hit the ground running as if the students can recall all that they've learned, as if they possess all the skills they had 15 months earlier. One week into the school year and many 5th Year students are already talking about "dropping down" or how they don't understand anything. Kids get left behind in a hurry.

What about my daughter? Well, she's lucky that I have the time to help her. So far we've had to work together on her homework every night.

I have a degree in Math so I kind of enjoy dusting off skills and knowledge I haven't had much call for in decades. I bet there are a lot of parents, however, who couldn't adequately explain trigonometry or what have you to their child. Their children are falling behind from the get go.

How many of those children will have to "drop down" thanks to the fact that they couldn't keep pace when the gun went off in 5th year? How many would have been better off if they hadn't had a year off? Thousands.