The reasons we have problems with mathematics education

 A majority of the reports suggest reasons for, or causes of, the perceived problems in mathematics education. These relate to three key areas:

I am interested in the perceived and actual reasons for these problems, and a first step in my research has been to ask people, using a web 2.0 approach which draws on the ‘wisdom of the crowds’. For example, Twitter and Facebook have been used to invite people to complete a questionnaire. People were asked whether each of the following is a key reason for the problems, has some influence or is not a reason:

  • Assessment focuses on the wrong things
  • The curriculum is not fit for purpose
  • Mathematics is hard
  • Societal attitudes towards mathematics are negative
  • Teaching is not good enough

The research is at an early stage, but some initial results are available. The graph below summarises responses from 192 participants (including 101 from the UK, 68 from South Africa, 8 from the USA and 15 others) as at 8th August 2014.

causes worldwide2

It seems all the reasons provided in the questionnaire are seen to contribute to the problems in mathematics education. A very small proportion of respondents (less than 10%) did not see negative societal attitudes as making some contribution, with almost 50% seeing this as a key reason. Only about 20% thought that assessment and poor teaching had no influence on the problems and in both cases almost 30% each thought these were key reasons. It seems that people also generally see the curriculum as making an important contribution to the problems, although about a quarter of the respondents said that they thought it had no influence. The least popular (and possibly most disputed) cause of the problems seems to be the nature of mathematics and the perception that it is difficult.

For respondents from the UK only (this is a subset of the above), the picture is slightly different:

causes UK2Here a very slightly higher proportion of respondents consider that societal attitudes are a key reason or has some influence. In terms of assessment, the proportion of respondents reporting that they thought it was not a reason is the same in the two populations but in the UK the proportion that thought it was a key reason is slightly higher than in the worldwide sample. In terms of the curriculum, a slightly higher proportion reported that they believed it was either a key reason or had an influence and  a slightly higher proportion, almost 30%, said that they thought teaching was not a reason with under 20% stating that it is a key reason. The results for ‘maths is hard’ were about the same.

The analysis of the data from South Africa can be found here.

Have your say here  or, for South Africans,  here.


2 Responses to The reasons we have problems with mathematics education

  1. I’m glad to see someone researching this topic. But i have some concerns.
    Seems you are researching a PERCEPTION of the reasons for the PERCEPTION of problems in math education. Have you studied examples of SUCCESS?–one that comes to mind is Jaime Escalante whose work was described in the movie Stand and Deliver. Before we debate causes of the failures in teaching math, perhaps we need an existence proof that a successful method exists, or in principle can exist. Are all human minds equally capable of grasping mathematical concepts? Are they all capable of responding successfully to the same instructional approach?

    If “societal attitudes” is the main reason, what is the reason for the attitude?
    Is it perhaps that society is correct in the assessment that math is “too hard” and “not really necessary”? “Assessment focuses on the wrong things” might be interpreted as “people don’t really need to know all this stuff.”

    • Marie says:

      Thank you, Joseph, for your comments. You’re right, I am researching a perception of a perception, but as this page ( establishes fairly well, I think, the second perception is quite well agreed.

      There are some examples of success where ‘success’ means that the students are emerging from school with mathematics knowledge and skills that seem to satisfy future employers – mainly in the Pacific Rim countries (e.g. Singapore, South Korea). I think you’re talking about a successful method of teaching, but I think it is much more complex than merely teaching.

      I am not going into the reasons for the reasons! I take your point, however, that societal attitudes may well be shaped by a view that maths is hard!

      In terms of assessment, I think that ‘what you test is what you get’ – perhaps if we tested better, we’d get better teaching!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s