Students need real-world maths and science teachers

8 November 2017
Greg Whitby AM is Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta.

Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

When you visit the dentist it’s reasonable to expect that you don’t have someone trained in geography working on your teeth. Yet in schools, particularly secondary schools, we have maths and science being taught by teachers without the deep knowledge needed to teach these subjects. The odds of encountering a specialist maths and science teacher are worse for schools in disadvantaged, regional and remote areas.

Australia like many other countries, faces a shortage of teachers at primary and secondary level who specialise in maths and science. Some argue that this is linked to the decline in the number of students taking maths and science courses in Year 11 and 12, which results in fewer students taking these courses at university. It’s a vicious cycle and one that will diminish the quality of our education system and the opportunities for young people if we don’t think outside the square.

With an intense focus now on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, some schools will really struggle to attract enough great maths and science teachers to cover all bases. The reason why these teachers are valuable resources is that whenever there is a ratio of one maths or science teacher to 30 students, there will always be a shortage.

The usual policy solution is to work harder to attract, train, re-train or even incentivise people from STEM industries to teach. This is short-sighted. The solution lies in creating new structures within schools that promote teachers working in teams and moves students away from being organised in cohort groups.

In the same way that sectors like law bring specialists together to work on a particular case, project-based learning (PBL) in schools brings specialist teachers in English, maths, science, history to work on integrated projects that cover the requirements of the syllabus. When individual students need greater focus on the maths side of the project, then they get additional time with a specialist maths teacher. It’s a very different way of working than the current model.

Whenever schooling is divided up and organised into cohorts and subjects, the spread of teacher capability will always be thin. Having untrained maths and science teachers fill in the gaps may get schools through in the short-term but it is ineffective in the long-term. If we want every Australian student to engage early on with ‘real-world’ maths and science, then we need to ensure they encounter ‘real-world’ maths and science teachers.

Greg Whitby

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta

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