Why I agree with Turnbull’s decision to make maths and science compulsory

June 24, 2015
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The Turnbull government’s newest policy for this election plans to implement compulsory mathematics and science beyond Year 10, with the rationale of increasing a range of occupations like engineers and statisticians. It also helps us to compete with the education programs of certain Asian countries.

Despite being a writer and a humanities major all my school life, I think that everyone needs mathematics. It could even replace English as the compulsory subject. But science? Chemistry isn’t really necessary to succeed in life, unless you want to become Bryan from Breaking Bad.

In 2014, 9.7 per cent of all HSC candidates did not study mathematics. Nationally, levels of students choosing to undertake Mathematics are decreasing rapidly. Further, there is a gender disparity – females still comprise two thirds of those who do not study Maths or Science and male rates of electing to take these subjects have stagnated.

Some reasons why I’ve heard people turning away from these subjects include: they don’t need it, they don’t have the interest in it or it’s flat out nerdy. And while all this whining is occurring, the OECD have released an investigation which examines low performers in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and what learning opportunities they are missing out on.

To begin with, of all the OECD countries, at least 25% of the jobs available requires some use of mathematics at a reasonable level. The report also found that those with better numeracy skills (not necessarily excelling, mind you) generally have (a) better health and (b) are more likely to be found in the top quarter of all earnings.

Even exposure to just four extra hours of pure mathematics (that is mathematics that is simply used to solve the problem at hand) is strongly related to better performance in the real world. And yet mathematics resistance in the HSC has tripled since 2001 and only slightly less than half of the eligible cohort every year do not take science.

The Refractive Index suggests that (particularly for science) the curriculum needs even less facts and more discussion to spur “extensions of knowledge”- inferring that scientific interest will remain if we let students discuss it.

...of all the OECD countries, at least 25% of the jobs available requires some use of mathematics at a reasonable level.

Of which, this sounds quite rough and vague to me. Will “discussion” be the only implement required to increase Australian children’s chances competing with the rest of the world?

Probably not.

So what should be done? The University of Sydney and OECD provide two interesting models to solve this numerical crisis. Associate Professor John Mack suggests that prerequisites should be set for all subjects requiring Advanced Mathematics and/or Science. Mack also suggests that public education programs need to address greater importance on these disciplines and “encourage” greater participation rates.

The First Year in Maths project also admits that it is as much about the student as is the teacher and suggests before we make any STEM subject compulsory, we have to assure greater access to qualifications for teaching candidates as well as raising the stakes for mathematics skills for all students in the report.

Whatever method is used in an educational system reform that is long overdue in Australia, we need to recognise there needs to be a greater opportunity to learn mathematics and science in schools and encourage students, parents and all stakeholders in education that the future is in those who have the numerical, technological and scientific capacities.

And for those who argue about compulsory STEM subjects cause more awful grief in high school than it needs to, get over it. There shouldn’t be a priority of one over the other, but the truth is that the brightest future in this world into the future will go to those who can do the sums and program the motherboards. So they may say that money can’t buy you happiness- but if money gets you what you need to survive and to live as an innovator, maybe the Turnbull policy does make sense.

Hans Lee

Hans is a student of Economics and Communications at Macquarie University and is currently co-writing and shooting a photography and theatre project simultaneously and will soon be on 2SER radio in Sydney.

Image: Breaking Bad official Facebook page