Sunday 14 June 2015

Math deficit

I just heard about an analysis of the mathematical capabilities of high-school students who have been educated through Project Maths and found wanting in the mathability required by the University of Limerick. Project Maths is a new way of teaching core math concepts that is meant to be different from what has gone down in the recent past.  I can't work out what the difference is on PM website.  They are more keen to tell everyone the names of the people [aka PMDT] who have helped develop the project. UL have some longitudinal data from 2003 where they have objectively tracked the math-skills of incoming students and correlated their Leaving Certificate [LC] grade with their ability in what UL considers to be core math skills. The results suggest that there has been some Leaving Certificate grade inflation: what passes for a B-grade today would only scrape a C ten years ago. That's not so good for the country or for the work-load of Third Level academics. UL now offer special supplemental maths examinations to students who have booted their Leaving Cert. If you pass their test they'll take you into their science courses.  I've spent the last 3 years taking classes in First Year Quantitative Methods QM. At the beginning of each year I have a straw-poll to ask what grade folks have on their LC at Pass or Honours level.  The median grade is a bottom-scraping D in pass-maths.  For some I have no idea how they got even that, because they know about as much algebra as my mother, and she clocked a zero on one of her exams.  Nice people, not without skills, but gallopping with math-anxiety.

Some talking head was dissing the results of UL 's old-style vs project maths comparison because "sure it's only the first full year PM has been running".  Each year about 50,000 people take LC maths, so it's data not anecdote that is being compared.  It is just conceivable that this year's paper was anomalously easy or difficult but I'll stake €5 that next year the result will be the same.
In the tiresome requirement for 'balance' in our media, the radio wheeled out a supporter of Project Maths call Dr Aoibhinn Ni Shuilleabhain PhD BSc HDip in Education from UCD who said she thought PM was just fine . . . except that she's prefer to have more calculus and less of the statistics in the course. That annoyed me intensely because lack of statistical savvy is the the biggest deficit we have in fostering critical thinking ability in our student body.  We had our external examiners on site on Tuesday and I was ranting on about this and one of the externs cited her favorite numb-skull headline report as "40% of sick-days extend the weekend". The implication is that such sickies are a scam because the perp either wants to get away early for a weekend of partying or needs Monday to recover from the effects. But . . . duh . . . there are 5 days in the working week and 2/5ths of them = 40% are next to the weekend; so 40% is exactly the number you'd expect to be weekend-bridges if sickies were taken at random.

The woeful Irish Independent put their report of her opinion in their style/celebrity/celebrity-news bin because the rather symmetrical Ni Shuilleabhain is a "former Rose of Tralee". For the love of all that's holy, WTF has Rose of Tralee got to do with it?!  Well rather a lot actually. You see Ni Shuilleabhain used to date Irish talk-show host Ryan Tubridy and now she is a media personality in her own right.  The distinctly asymmetrical Steve Jones [R] got his launch as a media personality when he was invited to give the Reith Lectures in 1991. These were brilliant: in each of the six episodes I, a professional geneticist, learned something new and interesting; while simultaneously my parents, with no scientific training at all, found the whole series rivetting. Those Reith Lectures served as the skeleton of Steve's first pop.sci. book The Language of the Genes and since then he's become a much demanded public face of science and written several more successful books.  But how did he get the first gig? He was dating a researcher at the BBC who was party to endless discussions about "who will we get the year after next" and she said, in effect, why not ask my bloke? he talks a streak and it's really interesting. Now here's the skinny on The Calculus.  I was rather good at this when I was doing "A" levels in my last two years in school - I got a B in the exams and knew all the tricks for integrating this and differentiating that. But in 40 years as a professional scientist generating and analysing all sorts of quantitative data, I've never, ever, needed to use The Calculus.  Heck-and-jiminy, my woeful Latin has been far more use to me than Calculus.  Dr Ni Shuilleabhain believes otherwise but I'm telling her that calculus is good fun if you can do it, but not a requirement for being successful in Science.

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