Teachers complain maths papers too hard

Teachers whose studies are funded by the Government to upgrade their qualifications have been refusing to take Foundation level Mathematics courses.

They claim they are too advanced and irrelevant for their primary and secondary student’s needs.

This is according to research published last month conducted by N.U.S. Faculty of Education (F.O.E.) staff. It reveals that improving Math education is just as hard for teachers as it is for students.

Ten upgrading teachers and two mathematics lecturers were interviewed for the study.

The research was conducted by the F.O.E. Head of Department, Fuaialii Tagataese Tupu Tuia, and Mathematics Lecturer, Taulauniu Pule Mariota.

With fewer than 15 per cent of year 13 students passing their Samoa School Leavers Certificate mathematics exams (S.S.L.C) each year since 2013, the quality of mathematics education in Samoa has been under the microscope for several years. 

In 2015, just one per cent of all students achieved excellence in mathematics, according to the Ministry of Education, Sports and Culture’s (M.E.S.C.) reporting. 

That same year, after revelations that 10 per cent of teachers held degrees in education, an ambitious project to get all public teachers armed with a Bachelors of Education was launched and the National University of Samoa (N.U.S.) tasked with delivering the goods. 

Since its inception, two cohorts, or 230 primary and 88 secondary teachers have graduated with a Bachelors of Education, bringing the total closer to 34 per cent of teachers. 

But research published last month  shows teachers in the programme struggling with and in some cases refusing to undertake the two Foundation level mathematics courses required of them.

“They complained about the advanced level of content of the university foundation mathematics papers and the lack of alignment with the primary school mathematics curriculum,” the authors wrote.

The teachers, believing their students wouldn’t require the level of mathematics being taught, did not want to learn it either.

“The rationale behind this is that in order to be a teacher of a specific subject, you need to have a slightly higher knowledge content compared to the students,” explained Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University Peseta Dr. Desmond Lee Hang.

“The minimum requirement that was set by the former professor of Mathematics, currently C.E.O. (Chief Executive Officer Afamasaga Dr. Karoline Afamasaga-Fuatai) for M.E.S.C., is to have those Foundation Maths courses.”

Mathematics pass rates have been struggling since 2014, when examinations were localised instead of imported from Fiji.

The rates fell from 40 per cent the year before to barely one per cent in 2014 – just 16 out of 1369 Year 13s passed the 2014 exam – and most recently less than 15 per cent passed in 2018.

Faculty of Education Dean, Tofilau Dr. Faguele Suaaali'i, said the upgrading teachers need to embrace mathematics more, despite the challenges. 

“They say it’s difficult, that’s the main reason they cannot attach to it. Because they have been out of study for a very long time – we get people in their 50’s, 60’s – they find it difficult to relate to,” he said.

For some teachers, the struggle may stem from ugly mathematics experiences in their own childhood. Peseta said he remembers being nervous to reach class the day after a mathematics test, knowing he would suffer corporal punishment if he failed.

But despite this, teachers need to have a broad and in-depth knowledge of the subjects their students require in order to thrive, Peseta said.

“The rationale in encouraging these teacher trainees to take up to that level of mathematics is so they have the bigger picture, and be able to lay the foundations for students to pursue mathematics further.”

Teachers are prone to showing bias by skimming over tough subjects and spending longer on their favoured ones, Peseta warned.

When mathematics is consistently skimmed over, students do not come prepared with the numeracy skills required by their University courses or their jobs.

“That could also be a factor for teachers resisting or refusing to take the Foundation basic mathematics courses,” Peseta said. 

In the research, one of the participants in the research reported the language, terminology, and formula covered in the courses was unfamiliar and complicated. Another said the classes should be limited to the teachers who need to teach the content, saying “only the year 7 and year 8 teachers should be studying these courses because of the year 8 national examination which includes some of this complicated content.”

A mathematics lecturer interviewed agreed with the students, saying “upgrading teachers should be given relevant or optional mathematics papers to study.”

But another lecturer, who no longer teachers mathematics in the programme said each and every teacher should be familiar with any mathematics problem to “prepare them to teach mathematics at any level.”

“Many upgrading teachers come with their prior mathematical knowledge and skills which are insufficient to meet the mathematical needs of their students,” the research explains.

“If student achievement is to improve, teachers will need to improve their mathematical skills and knowledge.”

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