Maths is a detective story, not something to be scared of

Platinum is a three-year international project that aims to give mathematics a good name. Eight European universities, including two Czech ones, work together to show that maths can be taught using a creative and enquiry-based approach instead of ineffective lecturing. The project will cost 450,000 euros (11 million Czech crowns) and is covered by Erasmus+ funding.

Maths has long been a dreaded subject among primary school students. While a third of students in their early years of school say that it is their favourite subject, this number dwindles to just 7% by the ninth grade according to a January survey by Tutor, which polled 500 fifth-graders and ninth-graders. Far from being reversed, the trend actually becomes even more pronounced as students progress through secondary school and university.

“It is obvious that students learn maths as a process rather than developing a deeper understanding of the concepts that would allow them to relate maths to other disciplines in the world around them. The traditional methods of teaching maths reinforce the current situation,” say the authors of one of the largest ever European projects devoted to the queen of all sciences in their appeal for change. The Platinum project will run for three years until August 2021 and focus on improving the reputation of maths and the way it is taught. The project budget of 450,000 euros (11 million Czech crowns) is financed by the Erasmus+ European Union programme.

The project is a joint effort by eight universities. In addition to two universities from Brno – Brno University of Technology and Masaryk University – the project brings together the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Leibniz University Hannover in Germany, Loughborough University in the UK, Borys Grinchenko Kyiv University in the Ukraine, Complutense University of Madrid in Spain and the University of Agder in Norway.

The project has a clearly defined objective, which is to help university students become more familiar with maths, use it in creative and fun ways and be able to apply it in their profession. And enquiry-based education is the tool that they would like to use for this purpose.

“Part of the project involves organising various meetings in Norway, Spain, the Czech Republic, UK and Germany,” says the founder and main project organiser Yuriy Rogovchenko, a professor of maths at the University of Agder in Norway. A group of university maths teachers will develop methods, case studies and internal reports, which will be available to a wider community of maths teachers in many countries. “Moreover, we will develop exercise material focused on research together with recommendations on methodology, publish research papers and present the project results,” says Rogovchenko.

The teacher is a facilitator, not a lecturer

Yuriy Rogovchenko says that the reason most children struggle with maths is that their teachers instruct them in a way that is not really helpful – usually standing in front of the whiteboard and lecturing.

“This approach focuses on memorising and developing procedural abilities, not understanding the underlying principles. Our project aims to insert elements of enquiry-based education into the teaching to support the students in exploring and discovering important mathematical principles on their own.”

An enquiry-based learning approach in maths focuses on developing understanding through independent enquiry. The role of the teacher is to guide and motivate students rather than just instruct them in the facts. Enquiry-based learning can also be used in science and technology education.

One of the main objectives of the Platinum project is to build a community of university lecturers who use elements of enquiry-based learning in their classes.

Another objective is to collect the enquiry-based tasks and exercises that already exist, develop new ones and add a guide on how best to use them since there are currently no comprehensive enquiry-based materials available for university maths classes. The Czech universities that participate in the project currently focus on electrical engineering students at Brno University of Technology and economics and pedagogy students at Masaryk University in Brno. However, another target group of the project are university students who do not specifically study maths but find it is one of the courses required for their discipline.

Everyone needs maths

Maths and statistics are an integral part of many study programmes, from biology and economics to psychology and technical programmes. “In other words, most university students who have maths and statistics in their curriculum are not future mathematicians,” says Maria Králová, one of the organisers of the project and the head of the Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science at the Faculty of Economics and Administration at Masaryk University. “While the teaching materials created in the Platinum project are intended for students whose primary discipline is not mathematics, the materials could be adapted to the appropriate level and also used for future mathematicians,” says Králová.

Masaryk University would also like to involve lecturers from the Teiresias Centre – a support centre for students with special needs – in the project to make sure that the materials created can be used for students with special needs. “We are also planning to organise a workshop for new university lecturers of maths classes at the Pedagogical Competence Development Centre at Masaryk University,” adds Králová.

Aversion as a self-fulfilling prophecy

There are many reasons why maths is so unappealing to students at all levels of education and, according to Králová, many students’ aversion to maths is so strong that they select their future field of studies based on whether it requires maths just so they can avoid it.

“Sometimes, it means that students lose the opportunity to excel in a profession they would enjoy; at other times, students are shocked to learn that their chosen field – which they assumed was entirely maths-free – requires more maths than they imagined,” continues Králová. In both scenarios, insufficient knowledge of maths and the fear of the subject carried over from primary and secondary school has a very negative impact on their university studies and their profession.

Too few maths classes could be one of the reasons that maths is so misunderstood in primary and secondary schools. “As far as I can remember, I had about four or five maths classes a week at secondary school plus a two-hour seminar in my final year where we basically covered the whole first semester of university-level mathematical analysis. Despite this, I was still not ready for what was awaiting me at university and I was poorly prepared for some of the courses,” admits Josef Rebenda, who is a teacher at another of the universities involved in the project, Brno University of Technology.

“You cannot get around the fact that maths requires time. If students did not spend enough time on some topics at primary and secondary school, we should make up for that by increasing the number of maths classes at universities,” says Rebenda.

Alternative methods already exist – in Asia

When asked what needed to be changed so that mathematics could become a popular subject at universities and schools alike, all the lecturers we spoke to had the same answer: maths must be made more human and teachers must be able to apply it to real-life situations.

“At the moment, maths is either demonised or uncritically revered. It would be helpful to all students if maths was viewed as a normal part of education, which is accessible to everybody at the appropriate level of difficulty and effort. We should not scare students away, but rather encourage them,” says Králová.

Asia and Singapore, in particular, is a good example of how maths can be successfully taught. “In our culture, society’s attitude to maths is generally negative and many celebrities like to boast how they have never been good at maths; it’s the other way round in Singapore,” says Králová.

There is even a term for it: “Singapore maths” describes the teaching method introduced in Singapore in the 1980s, which led to a significant improvement in maths skills. These days, Singapore school pupils regularly top international PISA tests. “I think that besides high-quality textbooks based on problem-solving, the generally positive attitude to maths also helps,” adds Králová.
The Singapore maths method is used from kindergarten until the sixth grade of primary school. Children are taught far fewer mathematical concepts, but study them in much more detail. They start by playing with specific objects, such as apples painted on wooden cubes. They first learn to add and remove them, then they start painting them, and in the last stage, they start learning how to think about them abstractly, in numbers.

The Czech Republic is also experimenting with an alternative way of teaching maths called the Hejný method after its creator, Professor Milan Hejný. The method has already been approved by the Ministry of Education and is used in around 800 primary schools, some kindergartens, alternative schools and by parents tutoring their children. As opposed to the traditional way of teaching maths, where teachers explain the method to the pupils who then try to apply it, this method lets children find the solution and discover the correct answer on their own, rather than having the teacher simply tell them how it should be.

The author is an editor of Hospodářské noviny.