Are young people leaving schools with the mathematical ability they need to succeed in work and life? The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), through its 2021 Mathematics Framework, aims to find out.
PISA focuses on mathematical literacy, which is an individual’s capacity to reason mathematically and to formulate, employ, and interpret mathematics to solve problems in a variety of real-world contexts. In a recent change, the framework offers a new emphasis on computational thinking as it relates to mathematics. Computational thinking in this context relates to the idea of pattern recognition, designing and using abstraction, decomposing problems, and determining which, if any, computing tools might useful for the analysis of problems.
RTI recently sponsored the international launch for the PISA 2021 Mathematics Framework at an event in Oxford, United Kingdom, in partnership with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Oxford University’s Centre for Educational Assessment (OUCEA). The event included a presentation summarizing the new mathematics framework for PISA 2021 as well as a panel discussion on the role of mathematics education in a global economy.
The discussion panel was made up of individuals representing industry, teaching, academia, research, and policy. Some of the key questions and responses are summarized below.
Why do we teach math, and what is the essence of math that students need to learn today?
One of the most traditional arguments of why we teach math is that math is useful. It was once the case that individuals needed to know how to perform simple arithmetic calculations in their day-to-day lives. However, now, with the rapid increase in technology, it has become less critical to know arithmetic calculations because we have tools at our disposal that can do those calculations. Now, it is more about the skills that develop through working on the content of mathematics rather than the content of mathematics itself.
How do teachers make math interesting and relevant?
In math lessons, students often get stuck in ways that do not occur in history or language arts, such as being unable to solve a problem or unable remember the next step in an equation. In teaching math, the process of “getting stuck” results in highly transferable skills. Specifically, what do you do when you become stuck in a problem, or how you communicate to someone else what you’ve done thus far in an equation and what you think may be the next step? As noted in the previous question and response, the process of working through mathematical content helps students develop soft skills such as problem solving, resiliency, and communication. This provides an additional benefit. It is also important to engage students in the fun bits of math, such as infinity or the concept of zero. Students innately enjoy solving puzzles so when math is presented as a problem-solving activity rather than a set of repetitive exercises, it is much more engaging.
How has technology (i.e. advanced computing, AI, machine learning) changed the type of math skills that are need in the technology industry?
The technology industry is not only looking for people with a strong mathematical background who can perform the analytics or develop the algorithms, but also employees who have strong interpersonal, communication and reasoning skills. Businesses need employees who can not only develop a product but also explain it to a potential customer. For employers, soft skills are as important as mathematical ability.
What should math teaching look like in the 21st century?
Mathematics teaching that focuses specifically on content doesn’t prepare students for the digitalization that is happening or the huge amounts of data that we are now presented with. We need math teachers to think about how they are preparing students to deal with issues they will face when they are adults, and math is a part of that. As a teacher, there are quicker, easier ways to get students to perform well on mathematics, such as showing a process and having students copy and memorize it, but that does not often help students become better problem solvers. Teaching mathematics in the 21st century should involve a deeper dive into complex mathematical problems with the appropriate amount of time for students to engage and wrestle with the problem. Instead of teaching the surface level of many different topics, math teaching should involve fewer topics learned in greater depth so that students can apply their knowledge in unfamiliar settings.
How can governments shape math education to ensure future economic competitiveness?
Governments have a significant influence on what students learn through curriculum. Governments also need to ensure teaching is a financially and intellectually attractive occupation so that they are able to attract good teachers. Governments sometimes trade in relevance for reliability and need to be courageous and able to confront the education “protectors” such as parents, government, and even teachers themselves. Pedagogy is evolving, and teachers often teach how they were taught and how they were taught to teach. Governments need to provide the appropriate supports for teachers to adjust to pedagogical changes. The exam systems in countries are also hugely powerful in education—they send signals about what is valued in education, so governments should be careful in their consideration of how mathematics is assessed. Success in education is no longer about teaching something but about providing students with a reliable compass as they go forward into the future.
View the full event recording.
View the PISA 2021 Mathematics Framework.