OECD report on school maths calls for better understanding of core concepts

An international report on school maths has called for better understanding of core concepts and more challenging practical problems.

Young people need a better understanding of the basics of mathematics so that they can engage in logical reasoning and use maths to tackle novel problems, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published today

The report, Equations and Inequalities: Making Mathematics Accessible to All, says that only a minority of 15-year-old students in most countries grasp and can work with the core concepts. On average, less than 30% of students across OECD countries (18.6% in the UK) understand the concept of an arithmetic mean, while less than 50% of students can work with the concept of a polygon.

But the report also says that exposure to procedures does not necessarily teach students how to think and reason mathematically. They also need to be taught problem-solving strategies and be set well-designed, challenging problems: these can have a big impact on their performance.

In his foreword to the report, OECD director for education and skills Andreas Schleicher says teachers can help by replacing routine tasks with challenging open problems, supporting positive attitudes towards mathematics, providing students with multiple opportunities to learn key concepts at different levels of difficulty and offering tailored support to struggling students.

The report shows large differences in maths learning experiences between different socio-economic groups. While disadvantaged students tend to learn simple facts and figures and are exposed to simple applied mathematics problems, more privileged young people experience maths teaching that help them think like a mathematician, develop deep conceptual understanding and advanced reasoning skills. Grouping children by mathematical ability can reduce opportunities for more disadvantaged children, says the report. (The report shows that the UK and Ireland have almost 100% ability-grouping – the highest rates of any countries.)

The report’s findings are welcomed by the charity National Numeracy. Chief executive Mike Ellicock said: “Young people need both to master the essentials of numeracy and to know how to apply these to challenging practical problems. And it’s clear from the data for adult numeracy in the UK that too often this is not happening – that young people are finishing their formal education without real understanding of basic maths concepts and so unable to do the maths they need at work and in life.

“National Numeracy has developed its own model of the ‘essentials of numeracy’ which can be applied to every walk of life. And based on these we have also devised the National Numeracy Challenge which anyone can take and which shows it is never too late to catch up. Our evidence to date is that four out of five people do improve when they follow the Challenge through.”


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