Mathematics education: A case for problem-solving

Education Matters

With Camella Buddo

Monday, February 20, 2017

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A country’s entire economy and growth revolves around different aspects of mathematics. The role of mathematics in national, regional and international developments has become more evident in contemporary societies, as emphasis is now being placed on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The school subject of mathematics has always presented challenges for learners at all levels of the educational system. Since the 1980s, the Jamaican Ministry of Education has embarked on various projects or initiatives to address the poor performance in mathematics by students who sit the national assessment tests or the Caribbean Examination Council’s Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate Examination (CSEC). However, despite these interventions, the performance continues to be below expectations. For example, in 2016, 57 per cent of the grade six candidates gained mastery of mathematics in the Grade Six Achievement Test and only 44 per cent of the candidates passed the CSEC mathematics, falling from 62 per cent in the previous year. What accounts for such low scores in mathematics?

The system continues to engage in the blame game. In my own experience as a former classroom mathematics teacher in the upper grades at traditional and non-traditional schools, there were certain basic mathematical ideas that students were expected to know and understand from primary school or the lower grades that they had no clue about, did not remember, or had misconceptions. In those 20-odd years ago, my colleagues and I were quick to blame the teachers of the lower grades for students’ lack of knowledge, understanding, and skills. And, based on the thoughts expressed in the newspapers and on radio talk shows, many people hold the view that teachers are to be blamed. In fact, I recall hearing a news item that the Ministry of Education, Youth & Information attributed the fall in the CSEC passes to the migration of many mathematics teachers. What then does this imply?

Is it fair to blame the teachers when school boards and principals, and by extension the ministry of education, to continue to employ individuals to teach mathematics who are qualified in areas other than mathematics education? How effective are those teachers who lack the requisite training for content and methodology?

Contrary to these thoughts of fully blaming the teachers, findings from my own research on grade four teachers’ opinions on their teaching of mathematics indicated that large class sizes, lack of resources, and overloaded curricular content significantly impact their ability to deliver the curriculum as expected (Buddo, 2012). Even though such data were collected five to six years ago, those findings are still applicable in the mathematics classrooms of today. In such settings, with ratios of one class teacher to over 40 students, in many cases, it is impossible for all the students to receive individual attention, and for the teacher to cater for the diverse needs, interests, learning styles, competencies, and abilities of the learners. Also, without adequate resources, the students are denied the opportunities to engage fully with the mathematics through concrete, pictorial and symbolic representations of the ideas.

The Ministry of Education is always seeking ways to improve performance in mathematics at both the primary and secondary levels, and is to be commended for this. For some time now, mathematics specialists and coaches have been employed to assist with the professional development of practising teachers and in their implementation of mathematics curricula. However, the data on the extent to which the specialists and coaches are positively impacting mathematics teaching and learning are yet to be known or communicated.

Since September 2016, the new standards-based curricula developed by the Ministry of Education are being implemented in grades 7-9 at the secondary schools and in grades 2 and 4 at the primary schools. Although this is the case, I am surprised that the School of Education, the teacher-training unit at The University of the West Indies, Mona, has not yet received a copy of the draft curricula nor have we been invited to attend any of the training workshops. I do not know the situation for other teacher-training institutions. I have, however, learnt from a few teachers who were trained in summer 2016 that the focus is on the development of higher-level thinking skills such as creative thinking, critical thinking and problem-solving through activity-based lessons in students-centred settings. This certainly is a welcome change from the traditional chalk-and-talk, drill-and practise, rote learning methodologies. In these changing times, graduates are required to have developed competencies in being able to think logically and creatively, and to make informed decisions.

On the matter of problem-solving skills, this is an area that the School of Education has always sought to develop in students who pursue the undergraduate mathematics education programmes. Since 2000, the course titled ‘Investigations and Problem-solving’ has been offered as a compulsory specialisation course in its bachelor’s degree in mathematics education and bachelor of science in mathematics with education programmes. The assessment for the course initially had students in the programmes working in selected mathematics classrooms teaching and developing these higher-level skills in the secondary students. Today, the objective of engaging students in problem-solving has blossomed into the annual staging of the Grade 9 Mathematics Problem-Solving Competition by the School of Education since 2002.

The School of Education showcases this competition annually among grade 9 students across the island to motivate them and to promote the development of students’ problem-solving skills and teamwork as participants are required to collaborate and present the written solutions to three or four problems. Problem-solving skills are necessary in this highly technological and competitive global environment, and problem-solving is the springboard for the development of other higher-level thinking skills and equips students more readily with the ability to solve problems in situations for which standard algorithms do not necessarily apply.

Mathematics underpins many disciplines, and by doing and learning mathematics, students develop the habits of mind and become empowered in their abilities to apply mathematical ideas in different scenarios. This year, the competition will be held on Thursday, April 6, 2017 at the Assembly Hall of the Mona Campus. We invite schools to participate in the competition and to express their interest by sending an e-mail to

I commend the Ministry of Education for the initial steps that have been taken to ensure that their teachers of mathematics are qualified in the discipline. I look forward to a reduction in class sizes and more schools having adequate instructional materials. I wish the ministry, schools, teachers, and other stakeholders every success in the implementation of the new curricula. I sincerely hope that not only will students’ performance in mathematics improve, but students will also develop a deep understanding of the mathematical ideas and be able to apply them in real-world contexts.

Dr Camella Buddo is a mathematics education lecturer at the School of Education, The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. Send comments to the Observer or




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