Australia is a Maths Leader?

Australia leads the way in teaching an area of maths that underpins the future.
Nov 7, 2023
Ms Donna Buckley from John Curtin College of the Arts, Western Australia and winner of the 2023 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in class.

The trope holds that there is something wrong with maths teaching in Australia, we’re falling behind, the students aren’t engaged, things aren’t looking great for the STEM centric future. But that isn’t entirely true, Australia leads the way in a segment of mathematics that will be fundamental in a world where data is currency.

We’re a leader globally in statistics education and these foundational understandings of the mathematics behind the algorithms impacting all our lives will provide an opportunity for Australia to be at the frontier of a data science, AI driven, machine learning age.

Ms Donna Buckley from John Curtin College of the Arts, Western Australia and winner of the 2023 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools says that, “Probability and statistical understanding is critical to prepare students for a future post-AI world. To understand how an algorithm works and the ability to write their own algorithms to solve the problems we will face. But the rush to get things to market must be slowed down if we are to critically analyse the bias, the risks and cybersecurity factors.”

In 2019, cosmetic giant Loreal (which filters around 15,000 new job applications each year) started using AI to narrow down the field of applicants. This time-saving technology streamlines the processes.

“However, we need to have checks and balances in place to ensure that the algorithm is free of bias and is not at risk of being vulnerable to malicious actors,” Buckley says, “I believe as Microsoft does that, AI can be used for good. However, good intentions can backfire.”

Buckley is positive about the direction of maths teaching and the recasting of the maths curriculum. She was excited by the depth of conversation that went on behind the scenes in 2018 under the OECD vision for the future of education. This coincided with the revision of the Australian Curriculum that will deliver the essential learning for students to flourish in mathematics and prepare them for the 2030 workplace.

“With the environmental, economic and social changes that children of today have, shallow knowledge and routine questions just doesn't hit the mark. A deep understanding of the mathematical principles that underly these changes will give meaning and truth to the misinformation which has spread across society.

“I am however concerned about the focus on assessment, and the increased anxiety among young people. Mathematics has been the gatekeeper of students’ performance, separating those with the 'maths gene' and those without, those who can and those who cannot. This mindset does not align with current neuroscience research. High school teachers need to step back and have a look at their assessment practices. Do you use observation checklists? Can students demonstrate improvement?"

Buckley retrained as a VET teacher to deliver Cybersecurity in her school, helping to improve her pedagogy and assessment in mathematics, using a competency-based approach. Her own ongoing education reflects her emphasis on real life applications for maths. That’s part of solving the maths engagement puzzle, the subject needs to be contextualised, enjoyable and inclusive.

“I would argue that students don’t particularly enjoy learning alone with laptops in classrooms. This type of learning contributes to their feelings of alienation and not belonging. While I cannot prove this argument, I would ask that you take the time to observe the two types of classrooms, one of play and student interaction or one of silent personalised learning time. I know which classroom I would prefer my child to be in.

“We need to engage students through play. Allow the fun, creativity and beauty of mathematics, science and technology to be discovered through active learning experiences that connect to real world applications or even better play with mathematical problems that have no application - yet. To have hopefulness that problems can be solved and patience in waiting for a solution, might carry over to non-mathematical problems we face.

“I look out into the world of mathematics teachers and I see never-ending worksheets, textbook exercises or personalised digital learning platforms. Taught as a bunch of procedures, without sense-making or understanding. It breaks my heart for our children and our teachers. No wonder there are decreased participation rates. Where did the fun go? The connections? The creativity?

“It is time to change our perspective. The quest for mathematical achievement, chasing external recognition and validation skew the way we experience mathematics. We need to build class environments that encourage students to play with the ideas they are learning. The skills that society needs from maths may change, but the virtues needed from maths will not,” Buckley says.

The subject has to be enjoyable for teachers too if we are to attract a new generation of maths educators, nurturing their careers by being respectful of workloads and demands made of them.

“We need to continue to have conversations about the joy of the mathematics profession. The preciousness of being able to light the spark in a child’s mind, to give them a safe space to thrive. Too often I read in the media about the day-to-day toils of work pressure and workload. Let’s shift this mindset. I agree that it’s a tough ten-week cycle - but the benefits of having holidays, making a difference, using your own creativity to continue to learn and share this knowledge with young people makes it worth it.

“I am concerned that the most passionate and talented of our teachers - those running the Sustainability, Coding or Fashion Clubs - are burning out with the extra workload they have. Schools need to develop policies that keep these teachers in schools, supporting them in their work. Respecting the professionalism of teachers, it is not a ‘clock in, clock out’ job. By supporting each other’s strengths, and providing time for lead teachers to just do their thing, we can shift the negative mindset and the burnout.

“We need to continue to share the knowledge that mathematics is an experience of the mind and of the heart. Like music, we can appreciate mathematics for its beauty and have the confidence to explore its wonder and take risks. We cannot all have the gifts of Beethoven, Amy Winehouse or Cheryl Praeger, yet we can admire their work and tap our feet to their beat, so we can experience more joy in our lives.”

If maths and science teachers are in short supply, young female STEM teachers are a rarer commodity still, women need support and mentoring if they are to add to the number of teachers in the space.

“As a sector we need to advocate for diversity, inclusion and equity in our schools. As a young 27-year-old woman with four children entering the profession, it was the support of my Head of Learning Area, Pauline White, that was critical in shaping the direction of my career path. She ensured that the school invested in Professional Learning for staff, introducing me to my tribe at the Mathematical Association of WA Conference in my first year of teaching.

“We need to ensure that our science middle management leaders are provided with leadership training. This should include developing their emotional intelligence so they can support their team to feel safe, connected and valued. We need to look outside of education to learn from other organisations, providing flexible work options for our employees. Working parents are juggling hectic family commitments before they even arrive at the school gate. This is a challenge for women in particular, as they are proportionally higher represented as the main carer in a family. But together, with good leadership training, we can shift culture to build schools that model diversity, inclusion and equity, providing flexibility in the workplace.

“To encourage more women into STEM education, we need to continue to support and value our Teaching Professional Associations. They keep our professions accountable at the highest levels, and we need to build and support this network of teaching associations across Australia.

“Finally, we should celebrate the achievements of others, to lift them up so they can be the champions that will create the champions of tomorrow. I have learned a lot in my journey to cybersecurity teacher from the WA Women in Technology (WiTWA) model - to see her, is to be her. This is a successful model we can replicate for growing diversity, inclusion and equity,” Buckley says.